Friday, May 14, 2010




In about five hours the space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to make it's final lift off at Cape Canaveral in Florida, of all places.
Atlantis, or Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-104, was the fourth shuttle built, and made it's maiden voyage on October 3rd, 1985. It's first mission (STS-51-J) was a secret, military assignment, doing secret military stuff up in space. Since the Cold War was ongoing at the time the secret military stuff presumably was directed toward the Soviet Union. Ironically on it's last mission (STS-132) the primary payload will be the Russian Rassvet (means: Dawn) Mini-Research Module, which will used for cargo storage, and as a docking port for visiting spacecraft to the International Space Station.
It will also carry up a Integrated Cargo Carrier-Vertical Light Deployable (ICC-VLD), which of course is very handy to have in case one needs it (it's a pallet holding a whole bunch of hardware).
It's taking along a few containers of bacteria as well (their always doing that), to see how they react to the lack of gravity on certain types of coated surfaces. Hopefully these experiments will help to understand and prevent diseases with astronauts, protect hardware used in outer space, and in hospitals back here on Earth, where bacterial infections seem to run rampant independently of the aliments for which patients are admitted. A perfect example of the practical applications of space exploration.
Along with all of that important stuff they are bringing a CD of all of the entries submitted to NASA's Space Shuttle Program Commemorative Patch Contest, to mark the ending of the shuttle era. Seventeen handcrafted beads will be aboard. Why? Well it's funny you should ask. NASA joined up with the charity, Beads of Courage, Inc., which is designed to bring hope and inspiration to children coping with serious illnesses through the Beads in Space project.
A piece of wood is also going up... and coming back down. A four inch long sample of a descendent of the apple tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to form his theory of gravitation. It's making a quick trip and will be returned to London after the flight.
Three space walks are scheduled for this mission.
The shuttle was named after the RV Atlantis, a twin masted sailing vessel, the first ship deployed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for scientific research.
Space Shuttle Atlantis was made by the Rockwell International Corporation right here in Southern California. It took about 5 years to build, and flight readiness firing occurred about a month before it's first launch.
Atlantis has flown 31 missions so far. It was the first shuttle to launch an interplanetary probe, the Magellan spacecraft to Venus. It also launched the Galileo satalite to Jupiter.
It also made 7 straight flights to the Russian space station MIR in the 90's, and this will be it's 11th visit to the International Space Station.
The reason I placed a big "Maybe," after the first sentence in this post is because we're not really sure that this will be the last voyage for Atlantis. It was supposed to be decommissioned in 2008, as it was due for it's third Orbital Maintenance Down Period (OMDP), which takes about a year to complete (it's first one took 20 months), and tend to be expensive, certainly more than I make. That would have left the shuttle program with just two working spacecraft, Endeavor and Discovery, which were both to be used until this year, so the powers that be decided to extend the period of time required between OMDPs, and keep Atlantis operational, helping with the busy shuttle flight schedule.
Now, although NASA wants to end the shuttle program by the end of this year (Discovery will make a flight on September 16th, and Endeavor, the last scheduled shuttle flight, sometime in November) so it can work on it's replacement. But the Obama administration and Congress are uncertain as how exactly to proceed with it's manned space program (even if the Orion spacecraft, NASA's designated shuttle replacement, were to be deployed, a lag period of 4 years would intervene between the deployment and the shuttle's retirement, leaving the United States without manned space capability), and no one knows exactly what will happen with the shuttle program at this time. I certainly don't.
When Atlantis returns from it's maybe final 12 day mission to the ISS, it will be readied for another immediate launch just incase a rescue mission is required. And after Discovery and Endeavor return from their flights?
We shall see.

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