NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis is set to take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida today on its final mission after almost a quarter-century of missions.
The orbiter is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral at 2:20 p.m. local time for 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.
There is a 70 percent chance of favorable weather, said Patrick Barrett, a launch weather officer with the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base.
“Things are good right now,” Barrett said in an interview on NASA Television. “We are expecting to see some low clouds, and that is our main concern.”
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 announced in February 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.
The 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, which oversees NASA, 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.
Atlantis will be prepared as a rescue vehicle for the final shuttle mission, which is scheduled for no earlier than November.
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.