Shuttle Countdown T-0 Launch Day: A Tribute to Atlantis

Graphic design credit: NASA/Amy Lombardo. NASA publication number: SP-2010-08-161-KSC

This morning will mark the final launch of a NASA Space Shuttle into orbit around Earth on its way to the International Space Station. At approximately 11:26am EST Atlantis will reach the T-0 mark for the last time and roar into the sky completing a long tenure of scientific discovery for NASA.

Atlantis was named after RV Atlantis, a two-masted sailing ship that operated as the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from 1930 to 1966.

Atlantis (OV-104) was the fourth orbiter to be delivered to Kennedy Space Center for spaceflight, and the last of the original four. It was built in half the time it took to build Columbia and weighed nearly 3.5 tons less. A huge number of lessons were learned during the building of the shuttle fleet culminating in Atlantis, the lightest of the orbiters, a whole three pounds lighter then Endeavour. During its construction, NASA opted to manufacture a set of ‘structural spares’ to facilitate the repair of an orbiter if one was damaged during an accident. These spare parts consisted of a spare aft-fuselage, mid-fuselage, forward fuselage halves, vertical tail and rudder, wings, elevons and a body flap. Years later these spares were assembled into the orbiter Endeavour.

Atlantis lifted off for the first time on October 3, 1985 carrying the crew of STS-51-J. As part of STS-30, Atlantis became the first orbiter to  launch and interplanetary probe by launching Magellan to Venus. Later on STS-34, Atlantis carried Galileo to orbit before it was sent on its way to Jupiter.

Atlantis has had several major milestones when it comes to both the Russian space station Mir as well as the International Space Station. On STS-71, the 100th shuttle flight, Atlantis became the first shuttle to dock with Mir and transfer crew while in orbit. Atlantis was a workhorse in the building of the International Space Station, it carried a large number of components to the ISS, including truss segments, solar panels and scientific laboratories.

In May 2009, Atlantis was the last shuttle to visit the Hubble Space Telescope during Servicing Mission 4, STS-125. This mission installed new cameras, batteries, a gyroscope and other components to the telescope during the nearly 37 hours of spacewalks over 5 days.

Once Atlantis is decommissioned, it will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. On 12 April 2011 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle flight, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the decision: “First, here at the Kennedy Space Center where every shuttle mission and so many other historic human space flights have originated, we’ll showcase my old friend, Atlantis.” The Visitor Complex plans to suspend Atlantis with cargo bay doors opened such that it appears to be back in orbit around the Earth. A multi-story digital projection of the home planet that will rotate behind the orbiter in a 64,000 square-foot indoor facility is also proposed. Ground breaking of the facility is planned to begin in 2012 with the exhibit opening in 2013.

Today, however, is the launch of STS-135, a relatively humble mission the the scheme of missions. The rare four member crew will be commanded by Chris Ferguson, piloted by Doug Hurley, and joined by  Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus as mission specialists. During STS-135, Atlantis will carry the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station. The mission also will fly a system to investigate the potential for robotically refueling existing spacecraft and return a failed ammonia pump module to help NASA better understand the failure mechanism and improve pump designs for future systems.

While there was a chance of delay due to weather, as of now the shuttle launch is still a GO, and the weather has been looking good for the launch window! So tune in to history this morning, and watch the final shuttle lift off.  You can watch the launch on NASA TV online or on NASA TV on your local cable provider, it will also be carried by most large news networks.

Image above: Pictured in the STS-135 crew portrait are NASA astronauts Chris Ferguson (center right), commander; Doug Hurley (center left), pilot; Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus, both mission specialists. Image credit: NASA

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