Atlantis launched successfully, and beautifully, on its final scheduled voyage to space Friday at 2:20 pm EDT (1820 GMT). The shuttle and its six astronauts will deliver 3,000 pounds of U.S. supplies, including food and laptop computers to the International Space Station. and — for the first (at last) time — bring a Russian module to the station. The 12-day mission will include 3 spacewalks for that will focus on storing spare components outside the station, including six batteries, a communications antenna and parts for the Canadian Dextre robotic arm.
But will it be the final flight of Atlantis? "We like to call this the first last flight of Atlantis," said commander Ken Ham in a preflight news conference. Since Atlantis will be ready to go as a rescue ship for the currently schedule final flight of the shuttle program (for the post-Columbia Launch On Need mission), many have said it should be flown.
The shuttle crew is scheduled to dock to the station at 10:27 a.m. EDT on Sunday, May 16. The crew includes Ham, Pilot Tony Antonelli and Mission Specialists Garrett Reisman, Michael Good, Steve Bowen, and Piers Sellers.
A 12-day mission is one of the shorter durations for a mission to the ISS. But compare it to a 6-month stay on the space station? "It is like a sprint," said former astronaut LeRoy Chaio on Spaceflightnow.com's live coverage of the launch. "It is a whole different experience being up there for six months where you have the chance to do and experience more things. On a short shuttle mission what you don't have is the time to sit back and take in the scenery " Chaio said he took over 16,000 photos during his expedition to the ISS from October 9, 2004–April 24, 2005.
Chaio said a 3-4 month mission is probably optimal, from a personal standpoint. "You miss you family and freinds, but what you miss after that is green – you know, nature, you do miss that. But after 3 months, you've experienced all you expect to, there are no more surprises, but even on a space station mission you're still very busy – you're never bored. The ground can definitely keep you busy and any time in space is never bad!"
Asked if spaceflight changes people, Chaio said, absolutely. "I don’t think anyone is unchanged. Certainly the long flight changes you even more, but my first shuttle flight was just incredible as it was the realization of boyhood dream, and looking at the earth is just indescribable. You can't experience something like that without having it change you. I think it changes people in different ways; some became more philosophical, some astronauts found religion, some became recluses, some became a little odd. It taught me to take a step back and get more of the big picture of life. Little things used to bother me. But not now."
IN PICTURES: NASA's Space Shuttle
Nancy Atkinson blogs at Universe Today.