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Final shuttle mission: Who'll supply the International Space Station now?

Atlantis and its four-member crew, in the final mission of the space shuttle program, shrugged off concerns about the weather and took off for one last supply run to the International Space Station.

By Staff writer / July 8, 2011

The space shuttle Atlantis STS-135 lifts off from launch pad 39A Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The 12-day mission to the International Space Station is the last mission in the Space Shuttle program.

Pierre Ducharme/Reuters


With one last fiery blast from its massive main engines and one last, iconic, 180-degree roll after liftoff, the space shuttle Atlantis and its four-member crew roared into orbit Friday to begin the final voyage of the 39-year shuttle program.

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The primary goal of the 12-day mission is to make a final delivery run to the International Space Station, leaving it as stocked as possible. Although the Europeans, Japan, and Russia will continue to deliver supplies in the shuttle's absence, none of their vehicles have the cargo capacity a shuttle could deliver.

The mission also provides insurance against any delays that might occur as commercial companies take cargo-delivery, and eventually the crew-delivery, batons from NASA.

With an eye toward the future, the shuttle also is carrying experimental gear to demonstrate an ability to robotically refuel satellites not originally designed for in-orbit top-offs. Such a capability would extend the life of expensive communications satellites, which would drop down to the station's altitude from higher orbits. But it also figures in plans for human space exploration, which often envision an in-space fueling or refueling capability.

Despite concerns about the weather – including a direct hit on the pad by lightning on Thursday – and a last-seconds halt to the countdown because of a false reading from a key piece of hardware on the launch pad, the launch was essentially picture-perfect.

To Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, the launch preparations, as well as the launch itself, were testament to the professionalism of a launch team working in the face of enormous personal uncertainty as the center's duties shift and the workforce shrinks dramatically.

"Change is hard," he says. "We're going to have more folks walking out the door here in the next few weeks."

Still, "they've performed their jobs absolutely flawlessly right up to the end. That says a lot for them."

The sense of finality was evident from the launch director's last comments to the shuttle crew in the waning minutes of the countdown to the slow, reluctant departure of the launch team from the control room after Atlantis cleared the pad.

"It did take awhile to leave the control room," said Michael Leinbach, the mission's launch director. "It seemed like we didn't want to leave; it was like the end of a party, and you just don't want to go. You just want to hang around just a little bit longer and relish our friends and what we've accomplished" in the 30 years the shuttles have been operating.


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