CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off its launch pad at 10:26 CDT today, on the final flight in the shuttle program.
This flight marks the end of a 30-year era in U.S. spaceflight history. It’s the 33rd flight of Atlantis, and the 135th shuttle flight.
About the mission
Cmdr. Christopher Ferguson and his crew of three veteran astronauts make up the smallest shuttle crew since the sixth flight in 1983. The shuttle usually carries a crew of seven, but on this last flight the middeck, where the other three astonauts would normally ride, is crammed with extra supplies and experiments bound for the International Space Station. Atlantis will deliver a year’s worth of supplies to the space station.
The shuttle fleet has spent the last fourteen years carrying the parts of the space station into orbit. Now, with the retirement of the shuttle, the job of keeping the space station supplied will be turned over to U.S. commercial carriers and the other international partners.
American astronauts will ride to the station aboard Russian crew capsules, until the United States develops one or more crew-carrying spacecraft of its own to replace the shuttle.
This last shuttle flight finds the space program in a state of uncertainty, with conflicting directions from the White House and Congress as to how to develop the next generation of U.S. manned spacecraft.
The Obama administration wants to provide some funding to commercial companies, including both established aerospace companies such as Boeing and newer companies such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, and let them take the lead in developing spacecraft that can be used by both NASA and private “spacelines” to send humans into space.
But many members of Congress are skeptical that the private sector is ready to take on a job of that complexity, and want NASA to take the lead in engineering a crew-carrying spacecraft.