NASA has confirmed that the last space shuttle launch will take place on Friday, July 8th. Atlantis is scheduled to launch at 11:26 am and will mark the final shuttle launch of NASA’s 30-year long space shuttle program.
NASA officials met at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday morning as part of a Flight Readiness Review to discuss the final shuttle launch. Bill Gerstenmaier, an assistant administrator for space operations, confirmed that an “incredibly thorough review” was conducted and remarked that “This flight is incredibly important.” Mike Leinbach, the shuttle launch director, noted that “Team Atlantis is feeling good about the flow and the launch countdown and hope we’ll be able to get her off the ground on Friday the 8th as scheduled.”
The question of if and when Atlantis‘ final flight would occur and how it would be funded was an issue that started last summer, when the NASA reauthorization bill passed through Congress. President Obama signed the legislation into law on October 11th of last year, although there was no specific funding for the mission. NASA announced in February that the mission would continue “regardless” of the issues of funding with Congress.
The mission, known as STS-135, will last for 12 days and is the last mission in the 30 year shuttle program. Atlantis will be flying to the International Space Station with a year’s worth of supplies. The main cargo the shuttle will be carrying is the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) Raffaello, a pressurized container used to transfer cargo to and from the ISS. Atlantis will also be carrying a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier and the Robotic Refueling Mission. The launch date was confirmed after a week’s worth of testing a new fuel valve installed in one of the shuttle’s main engines. Also checked out were the support brackets on the external fuel tank, which were X-rayed and confirmed as safe and ready to go.
Four astronauts will be flying in the final shuttle mission. Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walhiem will be aboard Atlantis for its final journey. The four-person crew is the smallest of any space shuttle mission since the STS-6 mission in April of 1983 and is the first four-person crew to fly to the International Space Station. Crews of six or seven are usually assigned to shuttle missions, but only four will fly in the final launch because there are no space shuttles available for a rescue if things were to go wrong.
The launch of Atlantis marks the 135th and final shuttle launch in NASA’s 30-year long program. The July 8th launch will be Atlantis‘ 33rd mission. Atlantis first flew on October 3, 1985, on the STS-51-J mission. The shuttle is 122.17 feet long, with a height of 56.58 feet and a wingspan of 78.06 feet. The shuttle is also the lightest of the space shuttles, weighing in at 176,413 pounds. After its final voyage, Atlantis will be decommissioned and displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Since its maiden voyage, the shuttle has orbited Earth more than 4600 times and flown more than 120 million miles in space. The STS-135 mission will add another 5 million miles to Atlantis‘ total mileage. As of its most recent mission, Atlantis has spent 293 days, 18 hours, 39 minutes, and 37 seconds in space. Throughout its 30+ missions, Atlantis has been involved in several important projects, including deploying multiple communications satellites, deploying probes to Jupiter and Venus, delivering supplies to the International Space Station, and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.
After Atlantis returns to Earth for the last time, American shuttles will no longer be launched into space. Instead, NASA will utilize Russian spacecrafts to transport American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Photo Credit: heasarc.nasa.gov/docs/cgro/images/cgro/gro_launch.gif