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Atlantis lifts off into history

Last launch of Atlantis- Space Shuttle Program NASA-Bill Ingalls.jpg

By Tushna Commissariat

Despite gloomy weather conditions that threatened to cancel the launch altogether, NASA’s shuttle Atlantis has launched from the Kennedy Space Center. Marking the last and final flight of the Space Shuttle Programme – STS-135 – Atlantis and a four-person crew are on a 12-day mission to deliver more than 3.5 tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). This final stock should keep the station running for a year. Although the countdown stopped briefly at 31 s before the launch, the shuttle had a “flawless” lift-off, according to NASA. It has now settled down into its preliminary orbit ahead of its rendezvous with the ISS this Sunday morning.

The image above is of the shuttle, taken shortly after the rotating service structure was rolled back yesterday at Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls). Below is an image of the mission patch for this final iconic flight (Credit: NASA).

STS-135 Mission Patch.jpg

“The shuttle’s always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it commits to be bold and follow through,” said astronaut Chris Ferguson, commander of the mission, from the cockpit of Atlantis minutes before the launch. “We’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. Let’s light this fire one more time, and witness this great nation at its best.”

Atlantis was the fourth orbiter built and had its maiden voyage on 3 October 1985. Atlantis had a number of firsts to its name – it was the first shuttle to deploy a probe to another planet, to dock to the ISS and the first with a glass cockpit! It conducted a final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009.

NASA has decided to retire its shuttle programme with this last flight because the vehicles are too costly to maintain. It now intends to contract out space transport to private companies. The hope is that this will free NASA resources to invest in a other programmes that will potentially send humans beyond the space station to the Moon, Mars and maybe even asteroids.

Atlantis is also carrying some rather unusual passengers – some simple yeast cells. The aim is to study the yeast cells as their genetic make up is remarkably similar to that of a human cell. This makes it an ideal system for studying genetic defects and understanding how these defects may manifest in human disease. In two separate experiments – conducted at the ISS – researchers will study the effect of microgravity on cell growth.

The video below has the crew of Atlantis talking about the “vibrancy of the ISS as a stepping stone for NASA’s plans for future human exploration beyond low Earth orbit”.

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