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Respecting Atlantis as the shuttle faces retirement
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: May 11, 2010
Whether it was launching satellites to orbit our planet and even other worlds, breathing new life into humanity's telescope, fostering international relationships or building a laboratory in the sky, the space shuttle Atlantis has been a workhorse for mankind over the past 25 years.
"If this does turn out to be the last flight of Atlantis, this is the kind of thing that will hit all of us after we're done with the mission and we realize what part of history we may have played," said mission commander Ken Ham.
Atlantis has spent 282 days in space, circled the globe in 4,462 orbits and traveled 115 million miles during 31 flights that featured 185 different astronauts.
Jerry Ross, a seven-time shuttle astronaut, flew a remarkable five missions aboard the Atlantis during his long career. He hopes NASA will arrange one more flight for his self-described favorite orbiter, which would launch next year and be dubbed STS-135. Yet the veteran doesn't advocate an endless extension of the shuttle program.
"I think we all have mixed feelings with respect to the termination of the program. I'm kind of hoping we'll find a way to fly 135 and Atlantis will get one last hurrah, but it's not certain.
"I personally feel that it is the proper thing to do, to stop the shuttle program. I think it's time. I wish we had not had the gap develop between the termination of this program and the start of the next. But all that being said, I am looking forward to seeing it fly. It is a great flying bird."
Atlantis underwent preparations for its inaugural voyage, moving to launch pad 39A for the first time on August 30 and blasting off October 3 on a four-day classified military mission that deployed a pair of Defense Satellite Communications System spacecraft aboard an inertial upper stage booster.
Less than two months later, Atlantis returned to space to launch three commercial satellites on the flight that was Ross' first.
Several hush-hush missions for the Defense Department used Atlantis to haul a Lacrosse radar-imaging satellite into orbit in 1988, a stealthy bird and another top-secret payload on two 1990 launches and an early warning missile-detection spacecraft in 1991.
Memorable scientific probes for interplanetary adventures -- the Magellan radar mapper to Venus and Galileo to tour the king of planets, Jupiter -- were launched in 1989. And the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory was put into orbit around Earth in 1991 to unravel mysteries of the Universe's most extreme and powerful objects.
The new era of cooperative spaceflight between the United States and Russia saw Atlantis at the forefront, flying seven trips to dock with the orbiting space station Mir for the delivery of goods and the exchange of American astronauts staying there for scientific tours-of-duty.
And Atlantis made the final service call to the Hubble Space Telescope last year, accomplishing a dramatic five-spacewalk mission that overhauled the iconic observatory with new scientific instruments and internal gear to bring about another revolution in discovery.
The upcoming 32nd flight of the orbiter will carry Russia's Rassvet to the International Space Station, a dual-purpose module to serve as a docking port and room for science at the complex.
"This is a very exciting mission," shuttle program manager John Shannon says. "Twelve days, three EVAs, tons of robotics, we're putting on spares that will make us feel good about the long-term sustainability of ISS, we're replacing batteries that have been up there for a while, docking a Russian-built ISS module. This flight has a little bit of everything."
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