The space shuttle Atlantis launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida July 8 for the last time, bringing to a close the space agency's 30-year shuttle program.
During the 12-day mission to the International Space Sation (ISS), Atlantis and its crew will deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station and its crew. The STS-135 astronauts include Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
Emmy-nominated composer Bear McCreary, known for his television scores, has composed a fanfare specifically to commemorate the final space shuttle flight. People viewing the launch from some of the other locations at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida will also be able to hear the composition. McCreary composed the music for the science fiction television series Battlestar Galactica, among others, and has also worked with film music legend Elmer Bernstein, who composed the music for The Magnificent Seven and The Ten Commandments.
The mission will fly the RRM (Robotic Refueling Mission), an experiment designed to demonstrate and test the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space, even satellites not designed to be serviced. The crew also will return an ammonia pump that recently failed on the station. Engineers want to understand why the pump failed and improve designs for future spacecraft.
While NASA focuses on the last flight of its shuttle program with Atlantis' liftoff, the space agency is at a crossroads and its employees face looming job cuts as the program winds to a close. With NASA looking to private firms to help lead the next phase of manned space exploration, program manager John Shannon said NASA is down to 5,500 contractor employees and 1,200 civil servants working on the shuttle, with a layoff on the horizon after the final launch.
The agency's inspector general, Paul Martin, has expressed concern over NASA's ability to get astronauts to the International Space Station, though NASA has contracted for seats aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry people to the space station until at least June 2016. In a 52-page report, Martin said the lack of mandatory compliance with NASA's requirements presents some risk that differences between partner designs and agency requirements could occur-a critique of NASA's plan to encourage private corporations to aid in the design and development of space-bound rockets.
NASA said it is working on capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system and working toward landing humans on Mars. The agency plans to build the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule, with a capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions. NASA also plans to announce the design for the heavy-lift Space Launch System that will carry astronauts out of low Earth orbit.
Atlantis, the fourth orbiter built, flew its maiden voyage Oct. 3, 1985. Later missions included the first docking to the Russian Mir space station on in June 1995, delivery of the Destiny Laboratory to the space station on in February 2001, the first launch with a camera mounted to the external tank, which captured the shuttle's ascent to orbit in October 2002, and the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope on in May 2009. Atlantis is named after the two-masted, primary research ship that operated for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966.