NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida today on its final scheduled journey after almost a quarter-century of missions.
The orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral at 2:20 p.m. local time on a 12-day mission to the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. The six astronauts aboard, including Commander Ken Ham, are scheduled to deliver a Russian research module, a set of batteries for the outpost’s truss and dish antenna, and other replacement parts.
Two shuttle missions remain on NASA’s schedule after the Atlantis flight. The program was canceled under President George W. Bush’s Constellation plan, which envisioned a return to the moon in a new spacecraft as a steppingstone to further exploration of the solar system.
President Barack Obama in February announced a plan for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that would scrap Constellation and direct the agency to focus instead on developing rocket systems that might eventually take humans into deep space. Private companies would build vessels to carry astronauts into orbit, especially to the space station, under Obama’s program.
Atlantis will be prepared as a rescue vehicle for the final shuttle mission, scheduled for no earlier than November. There is also a possibility NASA may send the orbiter on a trip to resupply the space station around June of next year, Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations, said in a press conference at the space center today shown live on NASA TV.
A decision on such a mission, which would send four astronauts to deliver a multipurpose logistics module and spare parts to the station, would likely have to be made by the end of next month, Gerstenmaier said. The crew would have no backup shuttle to rescue them if there were a problem in orbit.
“If they provide the funding, we’d be glad to go do that,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’re prepared for a contingency flight, but we’re prepared that if someone asks us to make it a real flight we can start that activity.”
Obama’s strategy has met with criticism from lawmakers in states with NASA operations, such as Florida and Texas, who say it surrenders leadership in space to other countries.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced a bill in March that would extend funding for the shuttle as work continues on the next generation of space vehicles. Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which serves as mission control for U.S. human space flight.
Obama’s budget for NASA, which must be approved by Congress, provides an additional $600 million to Kennedy Space Center for the space shuttle program in case the last missions are delayed until the first quarter of next year.
Atlantis, built by Rockwell International and named after a sailing ship operated for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966, was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in April 1985 and made its first voyage into space in October 1985.
The orbiter was the first to dock with Russia’s Mir space station and carried the U.S. laboratory named Destiny to the International Space Station. It also took the Magellan and Galileo planetary probes into space.