The Atlantis space shuttle left the Earth on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 am. Those who watched from the viewing areas experienced the joy of witnessing as the shuttle went through a perfect launch, then rose through the atmosphere until it disappeared from sight. After some excitement over a drop in cabin pressure that proved to be a normal event where expansion allows some oxygen to escape, Atlantis settled into a smooth journey.
But it was a bittersweet experience since this would be the last mission for the shuttle Atlantis and the end of the space shuttle era. The mighty beast would return to retirement instead of preparation for another trip into space. Atlantis and her siblings, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Endeavour will slip the surly bonds of Earth no more.
The last crew of shuttle astronauts for this sentimental and historic journey had only four astronauts: Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, pilot Douglas Hurley and commander Christopher Ferguson.
There was a major concern about space junk, which caused the international space station crew to do a rare procedure of manning the emergency escape pods in June. Fortunately Atlantis was not under any threat during its tenure, according to Space.com.
The shuttle docked with the international space station on July 10 in a perfectly executed procedure, ready to begin the following missions, according to Reuters:
During the mission two of the space station’s resident astronauts, Ron Garan and Mike Fossum completed a 6 1/2 hour spacewalk which included removing equipment from the shuttle’s cargo bay.
Raffaello, a cargo hauler that was built by the Italians was the primary payload. Raffaello was loaded with 8,640 pounds (3,920 kg) of food, clothing, supplies and science equipment for the space station. This payload will keep the station going until 2012.
The station has a robot called “Dextre”, which is designed to help with refueling and servicing orbiting satellites. The Atlantis delivered the materials for a 2 year project that will put Dextre through its paces. The project was due to begin after the shuttle departed for home.
A broken ammonia cooling system was collected. It was brought home so that engineers could find out why it failed to operate correctly. There were also tons of old equipment and trash that was taken home. This may have been part of today’s programs for reducing the amount of new space junk that is left in orbit to threaten the space station and vital satellites. Or, the junk may be examined as the broken cooling system. Finally, even the junk will be of historical importance to students in the future.
The final mission for the Atlantis will be final preparations and transport to its final resting place and museum display in Florida. The shuttle will rest at Kennedy Space Center’s Visitors Complex.
Americans can take heart that the era of space exploration and orbiting missions has definitely not ended. The next phase will involve commercially built rockets to get the astronauts to the station. NASA will modify the launch pads to accommodate the commercial rockets and has plans for vehicles that will go farther into space for deep space exploration.