After a Storied 25-years, Atlantis Celebrates One Final Time in Orbit

by Chris Gebhardt

And so to the end. With a flawless countdown and a launch into a clear blue sky, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched for her 32nd and final time Friday – beginning the end of a glorious 25-year career for NASA’s “most-international” orbiter. As reflection begins on Atlantis’ storied history, her first full day on orbit for STS-132/ULF-4 will be spent by her crew of six inspecting her Thermal Protection System (TPS) for any scuffs that might have occurred during liftoff and preparing the orbiter for docking to the ISS Sunday morning.

FD-02 Update/Preview:

Following a flawless countdown – in which only three issues were worked over the entire 73-hour count – Atlantis launched into orbit right on time on her first attempt yesterday afternoon.

Following her arrival on orbit, Atlantis’ Flight Crew completed checkout of Atlantis’ Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS — robot arm), performed the first of several planned course correction burns to further align Atlantis’ approach to the International Space Station, and successfully deployed and activated the Ku Band antenna.

At the end of FD-1 (Flight Day 1), all External Tank (ET) imagery from Atlantis’ umbilical well cameras and crew video of the ET had been downlinked to the ground for review by imagery experts and the ET community (50mb of hi res ET images available on L2).

Overall, all indications are – at this time – that External Tank 136 performed very well during ascent, with only a few small foam liberations visible via the live TV feed from the ET camera during launch.

For FD-2 today, Atlantis’s crew will devote most of their time to the now-standard inspections of Atlantis’ RCC (Reinforced Carbon-Carbon) Wing Leading Edge panels and nose cap, T0 umbilicals, upper flight surfaces, and OMS pods.

Furthermore, Atlantis’ Orbiter Docking Ring will be extended and prepared for docking operations to the ISS on Sunday morning. The Centerline camera will also be activated today for docking tomorrow and a rendezvous tools checkout will be completed by the Flight Crew.

Atlantis’ crew will also perform at least two NC course correction burns to further refine Atlantis’ approach to the ISS.

STS-132 Specific Articles:

OV-104 Atlantis: 25 Years of International and Planetary History:

Conceived as the fourth of the original four orbiters in NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet, the contract for construction of orbiter OV-104, later named “Atlantis” during her construction process, was awarded to the Rockwell International company on January 29, 1979.

Named after the RV Atlantis, a two-masted sailing ship that operated as the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930 to 1966, construction of Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis began on March 30, 1980 with the start of structural assembly for OV-104’s Crew Module.

Start of structural assembly of Atlantis’ aft fuselage followed on November 23, 1981; her tell-tale delta wings were later delivered to Palmdale from Grumman on June 13, 1983.

Final assembly of Atlantis at Palmdale picked up on December 2, 1983 and lasted through April 10, 1984. The extensive process of attaching Atlantis’ Thermal Protection System tiles and RCC panels followed during the course of the next year.

Finally, almost four years to the day after construction of Atlantis began, the then-youngest orbiter of NASA’s fleet rolled out of her construction facility at Palmdale on March 6, 1985 with a total birth weight of 151,315 lbs – 3.5 tons lighter than sister Columbia.

One month later, she was transported overland from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base on April 3 where she was mounted atop a modified 747 aircraft. Ten days later, Atlantis was arrived home at the Kennedy Space Center for the first time on April 13, 1985.

Atlantis was removed from the top of the 747 and rolled into an OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility) at KSC on April 14. On May 10, she was temporarily moved into VAB High Bay 4 for storage to allow one of her sister orbiters use of the OPF she had occupied.

On May 28, she was moved back into an OPF before transferring back to the VAB for storage on July 18. Atlantis was once again moved back to an OPF on July 30 for final pre-mission horizontal processing.

On August 12, Atlantis was rolled over to the VAB for mating to her External Tank and SRB stack.  Then, after 18 days of vertical testing with her ET/SRB stack, Atlantis and the STS-51-J stack rolled out to Launch Pad 39A on August 30.

As is customary with new orbiters, Atlantis underwent a wet countdown dress rehearsal ending with a 20-second static firing of her three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) in what is known as a Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) on September 12.

The success of that FRF paved the way for Atlantis to launch on the first attempt on her maiden flight on October 3, 1985 with only a 22-minute 30-second delay due to a SSME Liquid Hydrogen pre-valve close remote power controller showing a faulty “on” indication.

Atlantis embarked on her first mission at 11:15:30a.m. EDT October 3, 1985 from Pad-A and MLP-2 under the power of three SSMEs (S/Ns (1)-2011, (2)-2019, (3)-2017) powered by 500,000 gallons of LH2 and LO2 from ET-25/LWT-18, and two SRBs (BI-021)/SRM: L021(HPM).

(*Atlantis’ final flight – STS-132 – launch from Pad-A and MLP-2 with one SRB casing segment that also flew with her on STS-51-J.)

After 4-days in space (and 64 orbits of Earth) on a then-classified Department of Defense mission (the 2nd DoD mission in Shuttle history), Atlantis and her five member crew returned safely to Earth at 13:00:08p.m. EDT on October 7 with a gentle landing on runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, CA. Rollout distance on Atlantis’ first flight was 8,056 feet over a 65-second period.

Atlantis was returned to the Kennedy Space Center on October 11 and moved into an OPF for post-flight deserving and pre-flight processing on October 12. She spent only 26-days in the OPF before being rolled over to the VAB on November 7 and out to Pad-A on November 12 for the STS-61-B mission that launched on November 26.

As such, Atlantis holds the record for shortest launch-to-launch time (54-days from STS-51-J to STS-61-B) as well as shortest time in an OPF between flights.

Before Atlantis could embark on her 3rd flight, the Space Shuttle Program was grounded following the in-flight breakup of her sister Challenger on the STS-51-L mission.

During the two year hiatus, Atlantis was outfitted with numerous safety upgrades to improve Flight Crew safety and vehicle flight performance.

After Shuttle flights resumed in September 1988, Atlantis flew on her 3rd flight on the STS-27 DoD mission launching December 2, 1988 at 09:30:34 EST from Pad-B – Atlantis first launch from Pad-B.

The STS-27 mission for Atlantis also holds a poignant meaning for the Space Shuttle Program as Atlantis became the most-damaged orbiter to return safely from space.

During liftoff on December 2, ablative insulating material from the right-hand Solid Rocket Booster nose cap liberated at T+85-seconds and impacted Atlantis’ starboard chine near the Wing Leading Edge.

On-orbit inspection of the debris strike area (a debris event that was visible from ground-based tracking cameras during launch) were hindered by the inability of the crew to use standard downlink channels because of the classified nature of the mission. As such, NASA determined that Atlantis’ damage was not severe.

Upon landing at Edwards Air Force Base, it was discovered that over 700 tiles were damaged and one tile was completely missing. The missing tile was located over a dense aluminum mounting plate for the L-band antenna – a mounting plate that went a long way toward preventing a burn-through during reentry.

Atlantis spent three months in the OPF undergoing TPS repairs and turnaround operations before rolling out to the Launch Pad-B in late-March for the STS-30 mission (May 4, 1989) that deployed the Magellan spacecraft to Venus — a spacecraft that mapped over 90% of Venus’ surface and was the first interplanetary probe launched by NASA since Pioneer Orbiter (also to Venus) in 1978.

The Magellan craft created the first (and currently best) near-photographic quality, high resolution radar map of Venus. Magellan’s mission lasted until October 11, 1994 when its orbit was purposefully lowered to deorbit the craft into Venus’ atmosphere.

Atlantis was then turned around from May 16 to August 21 for the STS-34 mission, yet another planetary probe deployment flight. Launching on October 18, 1989 at 12:53:40 EDT, Atlantis embarked on a 4-day mission to deployed the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter.

Among the Galileo probe’s numerous successes and milestones were: first asteroid flyby, discovery of the first asteroid moon, first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter, and first spacecraft to launch another satellite (or probe) into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Galileo spent 14-years in space and 8-years orbiting Jupiter before it was purposefully deorbited on September 21, 2003 to avoid any chance of it accidentally contaminating Jupiter’s moons.

Following STS-34, Atlantis was turned around again and prepared for the STS-36 flight on February 28, 1990 – a flight recorded in history as the only dog-leg ascent in Shuttle Program history.

Given the classified nature of the STS-36 payload, and the need to place the payload in a 62-degree inclination orbit (an inclination above the maximum 57-degree inclination allowed for KSC launches due to U.S. land overflight rules), special waivers were processed to accomplish the land overflight and a special launch trajectory was developed to minimize Atlantis’ overflight of land during ascent.

This special trajectory involved launching Atlantis onto an initial 57-degree inclination through SRB powered flight. After SRB separation, Atlantis’ three Main Engines gimbaled, altering Atlantis’ trajectory into a 62-inclination to the equator.

The resulting maneuver carried significant vehicle performance hits for Atlantis as well as a hit to the total payload weight she could successfully lift of orbit on that mission.

Nonetheless, the mission was a success and Atlantis returned safely to Earth 4-days later.

Atlantis’ next flight was STS-38 and a classified Department of Defense mission. The mission was delayed and rolled back to the VAB after an initial pad flow due to the Hydrogen leaks that plagued the Shuttle fleet in 1990. During rollback, Atlantis was parked outside of the VAB for one day before her sister Columbia could be rolled out of the VAB high bay Atlantis was destined for. This created a once-in-a-program photograph when the full-up Atlantis (STS-38) and Columbia (STS-35) vehicle stacks were photographed side-by-side on the crawler-way.

Atlantis’ 8th flight in April 1991 deployed the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory – the second of the Great Observatories program. Joining the Hubble Space Telescope, Compton was later joined by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope to round out the program.

Atlantis was then called upon for STS-43 to launch the 4th Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-E) in August 1991. Atlantis followed this with the classified DoD STS-44 mission in November 1991.

Atlantis then flew the STS-45 mission in March 1992 which carried the first Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science (ATLAS-1) on Spacelab pallets mounted in her Payload Bay. The mission was Atlantis’ first of many international missions, flying experiments from the U.S., France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Japan.

Atlantis continued the international trend on her next flight, STS-46 in July 1992 with a tri-national crew (American, Swiss, and Italian). The mission deployed ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) EURECA (European Retrievable Carrier) and attempted to deploy the joint NASA/Italian Space Agency’s Tethered Satellite System (TSS). STS-46 also marked a major milestone in human spaceflight exploration: the 150th manned spaceflight.

Following this mission, Atlantis was returned to Palmdale for an Orbiter Modification Down Period refurbishment. During this time, Atlantis was outfitted with the necessary equipment to allow her to dock with the Russian space station MIR.

Atlantis returned to the active service in November 1994 with the STS-66 flight of ATLAS-3 to continue an ongoing study of the sun and its affects on the Earth’s climate and environment. The mission also marked verification of a new approach method for orbiting spacecraft. Dubbed the R-bar approach, Atlantis’ successful test of this procedure paved the way for its implementation on the nine (9) Shuttle/MIR missions as well as the numerous ISS construction flights.

STS-66 further marked Atlantis’ last non-rendezvous/solo flight as all her subsequent missions either docked to a Space Station or rendezvoused and grappled an orbiting space telescope.

Following STS-66 Atlantis was called upon seven-straight times for the first seven (7) of the nine (9) total Shuttle/MIR docking missions.

Launching on June 27, 1995, the STS-71 mission marked the fruition of one of the Space Shuttle’s original goals of rendezvousing with and servicing an orbiting space station.

The 10-day international and historic mission created the largest spacecraft ever placed into orbit at the same time (to that date), saw the first ever on-orbit crew changeout, and marked the 100th U.S. manned spaceflight since Alan Sheppard’s Mercury I flight.

The mission also produced the iconic photograph of Atlantis docked to MIR taken by the MIR 19 crew in their Soyuz spacecraft who undocked from MIR 15-minutes before Atlantis’ Independence Day undocking at 07:10 EDT.

Atlantis’ following flight, STS-74 in November 1995 delivered the Russian-built MIR Docking Module to the station — the docking port that would be used on the subsequent 7 Shuttle/MIR missions – as well as a new pair of solar arrays to MIR.

STS-76 in March 1996 marked another first, when astronauts Linda Goodwin and Michael Clifford became the first two people to perform an EVA (Spacewalk) around two docked spacecraft.

Later that year, Atlantis became the first Space Shuttle orbiter to dock with the fully completed MIR space station during STS-79. The mission further marked the first U.S. crew rotation on the Russian vehicle and returned Shannon Lucid from MIR after 188-days in space.

The mission further marked the first time the SPACEHAB module was flown in a double module configuration; Atlantis also tested a new orbital reboost/deboost technique (after undocking) ahead of the planned implementation of the new reboost procedure on the STS-82 mission (by Discovery) to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Atlantis’ following flight (STS-81 – January 1997) heralded the return to Earth of the first plants to undergo a complete life cycle in space as well as tested a new stabilization system for on-orbit treadmills that was later incorporated into the Russian segment of the International Space Station.

Likewise, Atlantis was utilized as a test-bed on STS-84 in May 1997 during undocking from MIR when she tested a proposed European Space Agency rendezvous system for what became the Automated Transfer Vehicle for the International Space Station.

Finally, Atlantis’ 7th and final visit to MIR (STS-86 in September 1997) marked the first U.S./Russian joint EVA and the final flight of Atlantis before she was once again temporarily taken out of service for an Orbiter Modification Down Period.

During this OMDP, Atlantis received all the necessary upgrades to enable her to fly construction missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

Atlantis, during this OMDP, also became the first orbiter in NASA’s fleet of four orbiters to receive the new glass cockpit – a cockpit that features electronic instrument displays instead of mechanical gauges.

The OMDP, and subsequent delays to ISS construction and bad weather during the initial launch window in April, took Atlantis out of service until May 2000 when she launched on the STS-101/2A.2a resupply mission to the ISS… a flight that marked the first time an orbiter flew with the glass cockpit.

The mission marked the assembly of the Strela crane on ISS, installation of additional handrails on the outside of the ISS (Unity and Zarya), and the set up of the center-line camera cable (a future vital part of ISS/Shuttle docking operations).

Upon post-flight inspection of Atlantis after STS-101, it was discovered that a damaged tile seam allowed superheated plasma from reentry to enter the vehicle’s left wing. The gas did not penetrate deeply into the wing structure and all the damage was repair before Atlantis’ next flight, the STS-106 flight in September 2000 that delivered tons of supplies to the still un-crewed ISS and paved the way for the arrival of Expedition 1 to the ISS in the fall of 2000.

During STS-106, the 50th spacewalk in Space Shuttle Program history was conducted by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and U.S. astronaut Dr. Ed Lu.

Atlantis’ next flight, STS-98 on February 7, 2001 marked the much-anticipated arrival of the U.S. Destiny laboratory to the ISS and brought forth the 100th Spacewalk in U.S. spaceflight history.

Atlantis quickly followed the success of STS-98 with the delivery of the Quest Airlock to the ISS on STS-104 in July 2001. Delivery, installation, and activation of the Quest Airlock marked the transfer to the ISS from the Space Shuttle of primary ISS EVA egress and ingress access. The mission also marked the first use of Quest for an ISS assembly EVA (spacewalk #3 of the mission).

Atlantis was then called on to deliver the S0 truss to the ISS on the STS-110 flight in April 2002 – the truss segment that forms the backbone the Integrated Truss Structure on the ISS. Launch of Atlantis on STS-110 marked the first use of the new Block II SSMEs (Space Shuttle Main Engines) which featured an improved fuel pump with stronger integral shafts/disks and more robust bearings.

Launch of Atlantis on STS-110 was also marked the first time that one person flew into space seven (7) times – astronaut Jerry Ross (who flew five of his seven flights on Atlantis).

Likewise, Atlantis was called on to deliver the next segment of the Integration Truss Structure on STS-112 in October 2002. This flight marked the first time a camera was placed on the LOX Feedline of the External Tank (ET) looking down over the ET’s Ice Frost Ramps and PAL (Protuberance Air Load) ramp – a safety feature that would become mandatory three flights later.

Atlantis was then prepared for flight on the STS-114 mission in March 2003; however, breakup of sister orbiter Columbia on February 1, 2003 during atmospheric reentry over Texas once again grounded the Space Shuttle Program. Atlantis, along with her two surviving sisters, was upgraded with the suggested CAIB (Columbia Accident Investigation Board) recommendations before being chosen as the Return to Flight orbiter for mission STS-114.

However, a problem with Atlantis’ landing gear forced NASA to remove Atlantis from the STS-114 flight and assign her to the Launch On Need rescue flight for STS-114 and the primary vehicle for the second Return to Flight mission: STS-121.

After a large piece of foam liberated from the External Tank during STS-114’s launch, the Shuttle fleet was again grounded and – because of the lengthy delay – Atlantis was removed from assignment for the STS-121 mission.

Again, Atlantis was given Launch On Need rescue duty for STS-121 while retaining her assignment to STS-115.

Following the successful flight of STS-121, Atlantis was stacked with her ET/SRBs and launched (after numerous weather and technical delays) for the first time in four (4) years on September 9, 2006 on a mission that delivered the P3/P4 truss and a new set of solar arrays to the ISS.

During STS-115, Atlantis’ flight crew demonstrated the new safety equipment made mandatory after the Columbia accident when they scanned the underbelly of Atlantis to ensure that all TPS (Thermal Protection System) tiles were intact after unidentifiable co-orbital debris was spotted near Atlantis the previous day.

Atlantis was called on once again during STS-117 to deliver a mirrored truss to P3/P4 – the S3/S4 truss and solar arrays – to the ISS.

Following a lengthy launch delay to repair over 2,000 divots in Atlantis’ External Tank after a severe hail storm at the launch pad, the STS-117 mission was flown in June 2007. Lasting 13-days, 20-hours, 12-minutes, and 44-seconds it is Atlantis’ longest flight to date spanning 219 orbits of Earth and 5.8 million miles.

Atlantis followed her longest flight with the STS-122 mission. Launching exactly seven (7) years to the day after STS-98, STS-122 delivered the first Laboratory to ISS since Destiny (STS-98).

STS-122 on Atlantis marked the beginning of construction of the International partner laboratories with the deliver of the European Space Agency’s Columbus research module to the ISS.

STS-122 also marked the celebration of NASA’s 50th anniversary and the resolution of the ECO (Engine Cut Off) sensor problem that had plagued the Shuttle fleet since the STS-114 Return to Flight mission in 2005.

Following STS-122, Atlantis was prepared for what is arguably her most important mission in service to the Space Shuttle Program and the international community – the STS-125 mission to service, upgrade, and extend the life of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Originally, targeting launch in October 2008, STS-125 was delayed to May 2009 due to the failure of a critical component on the Telescope and the desire to fly a replacement component up on Atlantis – the last upgrade mission to Hubble.

Launch of Atlantis and the STS-125 mission represented a tremendous undertaking on the part of NASA and remains a shining example of the work and dedication to safety that NASA upholds on a daily basis.

With Endeavour standing by on Pad-B in case Atlantis’ crew required rescue, Atlantis and the STS-125 mission lifted off right on time on the first launch attempt at 14:01:56 EDT May 11, 2009. After rendezvousing with the Hubble Telescope, Atlantis’ astronauts performed five back-to-back spacewalks – completing EVERY SINGLE complex and delicate mission objective and returning the Hubble Telescope to full operating capability.

Despite initial thoughts in 2006 and 2007 that STS-125 would mark the end of Atlantis’ service to the Space Shuttle Program, NASA managers were able to strike a good balance between safety and schedule by instituting two mini-OMDPs on Atlantis between STS-125 and STS-129 (and 129 and 132) to allow her to fly through the end of the Shuttle manifest in 2010.

These mini-OMDPs (or periods of inspection of critical components on Atlantis to ensure safety on her two added flights) enabled NASA to hand Atlantis two flights following STS-125: STS-129 and STS-132.

However, during post-flight turnaround from STS-125, a knob from a light fixture was found to be wedge in between Atlantis’ Pilot’s console and the inner pressure pane window of the Pilot’s window.

An extensive effort to remove the knob was undertaken and eventually proved successful. However, the pressure pane was found to be damaged. Further analysis showed that the damage was not significant and would not interfere or impinge on safety margins during flight. As such, a costly and extensive pressure pane replacement – which has never occurred at the Kennedy Space Center – was avoided (a replacement that could have removed Atlantis from service for 6-months or one year or all together).

Following resolution of this issue, Atlantis flew the highly successful STS-129 mission in November 2009 which served as the first major effort to pre-position thousands of pounds of external spare parts on the ISS before the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet.

During ground processing of Atlantis for STS-129, a record LOW number of 54 IPRs (problem reports) were recorded on Atlantis, shattering the old record of ~70 IPRs set by sister Discovery.

Discovery later reclaimed the record with only 47 IPRs during her ground flow toward STS-131.

However, Atlantis regained the record with only 46 IPRs recorded during her ground flow toward her final mission: STS-132.

In fact, Atlantis’ excellent behavior during her final launch countdown drew high praise from Alexey Krasnov, Chief of Piloted Programs Directorate, Roscosmos. During the post-launch news conference, Krasnov remarked that Atlantis was screaming, “use me again!”

Launching yesterday afternoon, Atlantis embarked on her 32nd and final mission (save the STS-335 Launch On Need rescue flight for STS-134) to space after a glorious 25 year career that included more international missions (be they science missions, MIR dockings, Hubble Telescope upgrades, or ISS assembly flights) than U.S. domestic flights.

In all 23 of Atlantis’ 32 flights have been international missions, making her the “most international” orbiter in the Space Shuttle Program.

Atlantis has served the Space Shuttle Program extremely well in her 25 years. She has deployed two interplanetary probes, deployed 12 satellites, conducted 7 straight dockings with the Russian MIR space station, serviced the Hubble Telescope once, and conducted 11 International Space Station construction flights (included STS-132).

Her service is one that could not have been done without, and one that has paved the way for unprecedented international cooperation both now and for the future of space exploration.

*Historical images via L2’s collection of 1000’s of hi res images in L2 Historical, many previously unseen.

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