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Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off at 11:29 a.m.

Space shuttle Atlantis launched today, marking the final mission and complete retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle fleet.

Atlantis is the last of three remaining operational orbiters in NASA's Space Shuttle fleet. In February 2011, Space Shuttle Discovery was the first of the three to launch on its final mission after nearly 30 years of space travel. Then, in April 2011, Space Shuttle Endeavour was set to launch, but was delayed due to a broken set of heaters. It took off on its final mission in mid May instead.

Now, NASA's Space Shuttle fleet will be three-for-three as Atlantis blasts into orbit for its last mission as well.

Space Shuttle Atlantis first flew into space on mission STS-51-J in October 1985. It has completed 32 missions, spent 293 days in space, carried 191 crews and has traveled 120,650,907 miles. Atlantis is the only orbiter that cannot draw power from the International Space Station while docked there. Instead, it must provide its own power for fuel cells.

Today marks Atlantis' 33rd and final mission, STS-135. It will be a 12-day mission to the International Space Station with the purpose of delivering supplies and spare parts, which will be contained in the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module.

Atlantis mission STS-135 carries a crew of four, including Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

"That is the most beautiful vehicle we've had to fly in space, ever, and it's going to be a long time until you see a vehicle roll out to the pad that looks as beautiful as that," said Walheim. "How can you beat that? An airplane on the side of a rocket. It's absolutely stunning."

Space shuttle Atlantis took off at 11:29 a.m. ET from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. While some reports noted that weather could be obstacle possibly causing a delay, the astronauts started boarding Atlantis around 8:00 a.m. and the hatch was closed around 9:21 a.m. for flight.

Reports have estimated that the crowd gathered in the area to see the launch ranged from 500,000 to 1 million people.

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RE: I will truly miss the Shuttles
By geddarkstorm on 7/8/2011 3:57:18 PM , Rating: 2
Wow, really? You really think there was no launch abort system? How about all these options, or the Inflight Crew Escape System ? The shuttle has lots of launch abort systems, I have no idea where you are getting your ideas from. The thing itself is basically a plane, and the crew module is hardened. The Challenger crew module SURVIVED the explosion, it was just nothing was set in place to allow the module to survive impact with the ocean (and thus save the crew). That was why they died . But we could certainly make a shuttle refresh with that ability.

As for reuse: refurbishing the shuttle certainly cost a lot less than building a whole new shuttle every time, and it sure worked out well. Not only that, but it allowed little upgrades to be done if needed.

New technologies could easily make refurbishing not only more cost effective and safer, but faster and more complete. Certainly under the current outdated methods, the shuttle never becomes creaky and unreliable. It was a mechanical STRIKE that brought Columbia down, on a very specific spot on the ship, nothing to do with refurbishing and a brand new shuttle would have suffered the same fate (no one thought the seal would be mechanically breached by a foam strike; that was the only true design issue, and easily surmountable with a design refresh).

Considering how miniscule NASA's budget is, the shuttle itself isn't the issue. It's that we need to give more funds to NASA than say the $16 billion congress is proposing right now. Compare that to defense spending. If we tripled NASA's budget, I'm sure we could have had the space shuttle for LEO satellites and space stations, and then another Saturn like rocket for our moon missions (which, I completely agree we should have been doing more of, and need greatly to do).

Without the shuttle, there'd be no ISS, no Hubble, and so many other things only the shuttle could ever have done. It's a great design.

RE: I will truly miss the Shuttles
By niva on 7/8/2011 4:29:22 PM , Rating: 2
The launch abort systems on the shuttle are not safe or proven methods for saving the crew. Most folks familiar with a RTLS (immediate return to KSC due to an early failure during launch) abort will tell you that it's very highly that it will result in a loss of the vehicle and crew.

It takes an army to maintain the shuttle. Parts are non-existent and manufacturing is extremely expensive.

NASA's budget is not little, I wish it was bigger, 3x the budget would probably allow for things to happen... but the shuttle needs to be retired for now. It's very risky and with each flight the risk increases. The ISS could've been built w/o the shuttle, look at how the Russians built their side of the ISS, or Mir for that matter.

If you're also going to use statistics (to the above posters) you should include all the progress launches in the statistic shown there. The progress vehicle is pretty much identical to the soyuz, just doesn't carry crew and doesn't undergo the same super stringent inspection that the Soyuz undergoes.

The Shuttle is an amazing vehicle but under the current conditions it's inoperable. We must return to simpler and safer (currently) ways of spaceflight for humans using capsules. Sadly nothing is available for now to allow the US to launch humans into space. For the first time in decades we will not be a nation with human spaceflight capabilities... that's what hurts the most, it's more psychological than the reality of the situation. Thanks to the shuttle and the ISS we've built an oustanding relationship with the Russians and we can now count on them (with costs of course) to help us until we're ready again with a new vehicle.

By geddarkstorm on 7/8/2011 4:42:48 PM , Rating: 2
The abort systems exist though, so saying they don't is false. And some of them have been used, such as the abort to orbit. Truth is, we never want to have to test these systems. Still, you're right in that the shuttle wasn't built with aborting in mind, which is silly.

You're also right that parts are non-existent, and thus the government contractors can charge absurd prices for them, driving the shuttle way up in cost. No competition is unfortunately a bad thing in these matters. But building a whole new shuttle each time would cost far, far more. Resuability is cost effective in comparison, but a shuttle will not be as cost effective as a small little capsule.

The shuttle needs to be retired, but it would have been best once we had another launch system to replace it. A year or two more. The shuttles are not getting more dangerous with time (they were designed to launch at least double what they've done so far), yet, and the two losses we've had were from extraneous circumstances not wear and tear.

Parts of the ISS would not be buildable without the shuttle's cargo space and design. The Russian modules are also smaller than the rest. An ISS could certainly be built, but not the ISS we know. In the future, we'll have much better capabilities. Unless we give up on space completely and let others like China take over.

The shuttle is not inoperable, but it is old, and it needs to be replaced. Modern tech would do wonders with a design refresh. And that would cost less than completely starting from scratch with Constellation. And now Constellation is gone because it cost too much and we're left with nothing.

Thankfully, private space companies are giving us a future, where the government has kinda given up. I guess that's the price for spending too much money though, and the reckoning we get as a country for the priorities we've set.

By geddarkstorm on 7/8/2011 4:48:11 PM , Rating: 2
I should also point out, much of the shuttle's primary missions were scientific. Things no capsule could have room to ever do, and which required people and scientists actively there to preform. The list of published literature from the shuttle missions are extensive, in everything from biology to material science. The shuttle was a science vessel, and unfortunately science is never economic in the here and now.

Now that we have a space station though, the shuttle is horribly outclassed in that which was its main focus.

RE: I will truly miss the Shuttles
By maven81 on 7/8/2011 4:44:02 PM , Rating: 2
"Wow, really? You really think there was no launch abort system?"

I should have been more specific, though I did mention catastrophic failure. The abort options you mention are not going to work in the event of an explosion, like challenger. Sure, the cabin survived, but the crew couldn't. One of the Soyz failures that you mentioned, Soyuz T-10A was saved by the abort system. The rocket exploded, but the escape tower moved the spacecraft away, and it landed safely. This can be done with a vertical stack, but not with the shuttle. I know there was once a discussion at NASA about ejection seats and such, but it's not a practical solution.

"As for reuse: refurbishing the shuttle certainly cost a lot less than building a whole new shuttle every time"

But that would make no sense heh, the shuttle is as complex as it is exactly because it's reusable. A non re-usable vehicle would have been cheaper to build.

"New technologies could easily make refurbishing not only more cost effective and safer, but faster and more complete."

But spacecraft rarely use the latest and greatest technology. Take the computers for example, they are always generations behind because NASA chooses to use tried and tested (and older CPUs are easier to radiation harden). I think bleeding edge hasn't been tried since Apollo.

"Considering how miniscule NASA's budget is, the shuttle itself isn't the issue."

Absolutely agree with you here. It's a joke that the NASA budget is less then .5% of the Federal Budget, and even at it's peak in 1966 I think it only hit 4.5%

"Without the shuttle, there'd be no ISS, no Hubble, and so many other things only the shuttle could ever have done. It's a great design."

Well that's not entirely true. Space Stations had been built before the shuttle (Almaz, Skylab, Saluyt, Mir...) It may have taken longer, or been more difficult but clearly it was possible. Same with Hubble. Hubble is merely the Astronomical version of what otherwise is a spy satellite. There's a persistent rumor that it used the same shipping container as the KH-11 for example (indicating they are roughly the same size and shape). Now the repair missions would not have been possible, this is true. But on the other hand as someone pointed out they were so expensive that we could have in fact launched a new Hubble for the price of these repair missions.

By geddarkstorm on 7/8/2011 4:58:57 PM , Rating: 2
What you say is absolutely true. I did take what you mean as saying there were no abort options, and for many stages of a launch there are, but for some catastrophic points there's little to nothing that can save the vehicle and crew. It is a critical, and long standing flaw.

I'm not so sure the shuttle is as complex as it is because it's reusable. I think the design itself is just that complex, if you want to bring back the entire vehicle from space (and potentially cargo it picks up). If you wanted just a cargo body and then eject with the crew compartment and re-enter the atmosphere with that, letting the body burn up, then it would be significantly less complex and cheaper. But for bringing back the entire ship intact, that's a difficult and complex maneuver no matter how you slice it, and reusability cheapens that, at least I would argue.

True again, space craft are rarely the bleeding edge. But even what is outdated now, and was bleeding edge back then, would change the game. Especially a refresh after 30-40 years. So much has changed, and so much could be changed for better performance, cost, reliability, and especially safety.

Again we fully agree. Some unique aspects of the ISS could not be, but there would still be an ISS if we wanted it without the shuttles. Not as fast or as easily, but always doable. Question is, what will our abilities there look like in the future in how will we choose to replace the shuttle?

RE: I will truly miss the Shuttles
By Jaybus on 7/10/2011 11:33:10 AM , Rating: 2
But that would make no sense heh, the shuttle is as complex as it is exactly because it's reusable. A non re-usable vehicle would have been cheaper to build.

Cheaper to build does not equal cheaper to operate, else airlines would use single flight disposable airplanes.

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