Space shuttle launches
Space shuttle Atlantis plans its final flight. / Image: GovWin/Flickr/CC BY-SA

NASA plans to retire its 30-year-old space shuttle program after the shuttle Atlantis has its final launch, which is scheduled for July 8 at 11:40 a.m., EDT. It will be the 33rd mission of the Atlantis.  It will be the 135th and final mission of NASA’s space shuttle program. The shuttle’s proposed 12-day mission will take four astronauts to deliver supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station.

Launch date could change

The announced launch date is based on current predictions but is subject to change because of weather or other factors. An official launch date will be released shortly after the Flight Readiness Review to be conducted on June 28.

Astronauts slated to conduct experiments

During this final mission, astronauts will conduct an experiment “to demonstrate and test the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space – even satellites not designed to be serviced,” NASA officials announced.

Astronaut Chris Ferguson will command the mission, and Doug Hurley will be the pilot.  Ferguson is a veteran of two previous shuttle missions. Rounding out the crew will be Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim, the flight’s mission specialists.

Safety inspections planned

In the time leading up to the launch, NASA plans to conduct many tests and inspections of the craft, particularly of the external fuel tank.  X-rays will be taken of the aluminum support beams commonly referred to as “stingers.” Several cracks were detected in some of the ribs following a launch attempt in November.  The cracks led to numerous launch delays.

After its retirement, the Atlantis will be sent to the Kennedy Space Visitor’s Complex for public viewing.

Aiming for deeper space

The space shuttle missions are being retired in order to begin a new program aimed at sending astronauts on deeper space missions.  The goal is to reach an asteroid by 2025 and then to prepare for a flight to Mars.

Private industry expected to step up

Following this mission, Russia’s space capsules will be the only vehicles conducting missions to the Internationals Space Stations. It is hoped that private companies will take up that slack, possibly as early as 2015.





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