space shuttle
A space shuttle launch. Image: GovWin a Deltek Network/Flickr/CC BY-ND

After many weather delays, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off Friday for the final flight of the shuttle program. It was an emotional moment for many connected with the program and will open the door for a new chapter in NASA’s exploration of space.

Successful launch bucks odds

After several delays from bad weather, the Atlantis and its crew of four took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., this morning at 10:29 EDT. Launch personnel had given the launch only a 30 percent chance of happening today, but the shuttle beat those odds. There was only a slight delay of about two minutes in the schedule because of a problem detected in a retractable arm on the launch pad. However, the problem was determined to not be a danger.

“This is the start of a sentimental journey into history,” a NASA commentator said. “Atlantis is flexing its muscles one final time.”

Mission STS-135

The mission, dubbed STS-135, will be the 33rd and final flight in the 30-year space shuttle program. The 13-day mission will be to restock the International Space Station with supplies, spare parts and experimental equipment. In the future, travel to the space station will be done by Russian space crafts. Experts predict that commercial ventures will handle the duty in a decade or so.

The role of robots in space exploration

Much of the experimental equipment being ferried to the space station will be used to help determine the extent to which humans and robots can interact in space. NASA believes that, as man travels deeper into space, the role of robots will become increasingly important. Part of the cargo is a washing-machine-sized piece of equipment that will help determine whether satellites can be refueled robotically in outer space.

“What have we learned in robotics in 30 years? This is it. It’s all led up to this,” said Brian Roberts, a robotics expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’ve practiced on the ground, but we need to see how this would work floating around in space. … We’ll learn a lot of what works well and what doesn’t work. We’re trying to show the capabilities of robots and their abilities to do these tasks.”

There’s an app for it

Mission STS-135 is also bringing an iPhone to the space station. A new app designed to track the results of various experiments will be tested. The app may also be used to aid navigation in space.

Looking to the future

“This is not the end of human spaceflight,” said NASA’s Chief Technologist Bobby Braun via Twitter. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Later this month, the Dawn spacecraft will orbit the asteroid Vesta. Another craft, Juno, lifts off for Jupiter next month to study the magnetic forces of the largest planet in our system. In September, the Gravity Recovery and Interior laboratory (GRAIL) mission will launch for the moon to attempt to determine the size and composition of its core.


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