NASA’s 135th and final space shuttle mission closes 30 years of triumphs and tragedies for the US space programme.
The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off at 11.26am EST (4.26pm Irish time) today from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the last time.
The 12-day mission marks the end of a programme that included space shuttle Discovery delivering the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit in 1990, the building and supplying of the International Space Station (ISS), and the loss of space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, along with the loss of their crews.
Challenger broke up in mid-flight in the second minute of its 10th mission, whereas Columbia broke apart while re-entering the atmosphere after 16 days in space on its 27th mission.
Atlantis‘ crew – commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim – dubbed "the final four", will deliver supplies to the ISS, such as a year’s supply of food and a pair of iPhone 4s to be used in experiments. They will also return items to Earth, such as rubbish.
Atlantis will carry the food on the off-chance resupply vehicles are delayed and can’t get to the ISS on time with supplies in the future.
Once Atlantis is back on Earth, NASA will retire its fleet of orbiters because of high operating costs and the need to free up funds for work on a new launch system that can carry people and cargo beyond the space station’s orbit, where shuttles can’t go.
Photo: Atlantis heads to space on 16 November 2009