Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Last Space Shuttle Checked for Thurs. Landing

A photo made from NASA television shows the Atlantis as it passes under a solar panel on the International Space Station after undocking for the last time on July 19, 2011. - A photo made from NASA television shows the Atlantis as it passes under a solar panel on the International Space Station after undocking for the last time on July 19, 2011. | NASA/AP

Space shuttle leaves space station for last time

A space shuttle left the International Space Station for the very last time Tuesday, heading home to end the 30-year run of a vessel that kept astronauts flying to and from orbit longer than any other U.S. rocketship.
Atlantis slipped away as the two spacecraft soared almost 400 kilometres above the Pacific.

All that remains of NASA’s final shuttle voyage is the touchdown, targeted for the pre-dawn hours of Thursday back home in Florida.
As a final salute, the space station was rotating 90 degrees to provide never-before-seen views of the complex. The shuttle and its crew of four were to fly halfway around the station, cameras whirring aboard both vessels to record the historic event.
Emotions ran high, both in orbit and at Mission Control. The naval ship’s bell aboard the space station chimed three times as Atlantis slowly backed away.
“Atlantis departing the International Space Station for the last time,” announced space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. “We’ll miss you guys. Godspeed.”
Shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson thanked the six station residents for their hospitality, then added: “We’ll never forget the role the space shuttle played in its creation. Like a proud parent, we anticipate great things to follow ... Farewell, ISS. Make us proud.”
Flight controllers savoured the dual TV images of the shuttle – the last ever seen from orbit – and the station. Mission Control called it the second-best view on Earth.
“It must look pretty spectacular,” Mr. Ferguson replied.
And it was: Atlantis sailing serenely against the black void of space, its payload bay wide open, and the space station, its huge solar wings glowing golden in the sunlight.
Atlantis spent 8½ days at the space station and left behind a year’s worth of supplies, insurance in the event commercial providers encounter delays in launching their own cargo ships.
It was the 37th shuttle mission, over more than 12 years, dedicated to building and maintaining the space station – the largest structure ever to orbit the planet. All told, shuttles spent 276 days – or nearly 40 weeks – docked to the station. It’s now a sprawling complex with multiple science labs – 13 rooms in all and more than 400,000 kilograms of mass, most of that delivered by shuttles.
Atlantis’s return to Earth, scheduled for Thursday, will conclude the 30-year-old U.S. space shuttle program, with no replacement U.S. spaceships ready to fly.
NASA managers say weather looks favourable for Atlantis’s planned pre-dawn landing at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 a.m. EDT Thursday.
“In broad terms the weather looks very good,” said LeRoy Cain, deputy shuttle-program manager. “We have a very good chance to get into KSC on Thursday.”
NASA has hired two private firms, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp., to resupply the station beginning next year. Russia, Europe and Japan also fly freighters to the station.
Astronauts will fly aboard Russian Soyuz capsules at a cost of more than $50-million per person, until and unless U.S. companies are able to offer similar transportation services. Several firms, including Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies and Sierra Nevada Corp. are developing passenger spaceships, but none are expected to be ready until about 2015.Read more....

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