Shuttle Atlantis Overview

by Chris Bergin

Shuttle Atlantis is currently preparing for a possible July launch – for STS 121, the second of the Return to Flight missions this year.

Also in preparation for the potential rescue mission STS-300, Atlantis will be used as a standby vehicle should a critical failure occur during Discovery’s STS-114 Return to Flight. If this is indeed the case, a successfull rescue plan would see Atlantis return to Earth ferrying an unprecedented eleven people, carrying on board the crew of Discovery as well as her own.

Atlantis (OV-104), is NASA’s fourth space-rated Space Shuttle Orbiter and was created in half the time it took to create her elder sister ship Columbia.  This was mainly due to the use of large thermal protection blankets on the upper body of Atlantis, as opposed to the individual tiles embedded into Columbia.
Atlantis was transported to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in April 1985 for her first space flight STS-51-J.  She was launched on October 3rd 1985 and carried – on her maiden voyage – a classified payload for the U.S. Department of Defense. The vehicle went on to carry four more DOD payloads on later missions.
Other milestones include Atlantis serving as the on-orbit launch site for many noteworthy spacecraft, including the planetary probes Magellan and Galileo, as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.  Many on board science experiments took place during most missions to further enhance space research in low Earth orbit.
Atlantis also pioneered the Shuttle-Mir missions starting with STS-71, flying the first seven missions to link up with the Russian Space Station.  On STS-79, the fourth of Atlantis’ docking missions, the Shuttle carried astronaut Shannon Lucid back to Earth after spending a record 188 days in orbit aboard Mir.
In recent years, Atlantis has delivered several vital pieces of equipment to the International Space Station, including the U.S. Laboratory module, Destiny, as well as the Joint Airlock Quest and multiple sections of the Integrated Truss structure that makes up the Station’s backbone.
Construction Milestones:
Jan. 29, 1979
Contract Award
March 30, 1980
Start structural assembly of crew module
Nov. 23, 1981
Start structural assembly of aft-fuselage
June 13, 1983
Wings arrive at Palmdale from Grumman
Dec. 2, 1983
Start of Final Assembly
April 10, 1984
Completed final assembly
March 6, 1985
Rollout from Palmdale
April 3, 1985
Overland transport from Palmdale to Edwards
April 9, 1985
Delivery to Kennedy Space Center
Sept. 5, 1985
Flight Readiness Firing
Oct. 3, 1985
First Flight (STS-51-J)

Upgrades and Features:
By early 2005, Atlantis had undergone two overhauls known as Orbiter Maintenance Down Periods. Some of the most significant upgrades and new features included:
  • Installation of the drag chute
  • New plumbing lines and electrical connections configuring the orbiter for extended duration missions
  • New insulation for the main landing gear doors
  • Improved nosewheel steering
  • Preparations for the Mir Orbiter Docking System unit later installed at Kennedy
  • Installation of the International Space Station airlock and Orbiter Docking System
  • Installation of the Multifunction Electronic Display System, or “glass cockpit”

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