Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Shuttle Atlantis rolls out to launch pad for final time

Shuttle Atlantis inches to her launch pad tonight. (NASA)

Space shuttle Atlantis began her final trip out to her ocean side launch pad tonight in preparation for the final flight of the program's thirty year history.

The roll out began later than planned due to a hydraulic leak on the leveling system on the crawler transport.

Atlantis' first motion occurred at 8:42 p.m. EDT, moving out of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and out to a large crowd of well wishers as her transport moved at a 1 m.p.h. pace.

Atlantis' four person flight crew were on hand near the assembly building to applaud and smile as their spacecraft slowly began her three mile trek across a gravel and limestone crawler way at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Atlantis' crew of commander Christopher J. Ferguson, pilot Douglas G. Hurley and mission specialists Sandra H. Magnus and Rex J. Walheim will return to Kennedy on June 20 to begin several days of launch pad training, wrapping up with a practice countdown three days later.

Launch of NASA's 135th space shuttle flight is planned for no earlier than July 8 at 11:38:20 a.m., on a two week voyage to the International Space Station.

Since this is the final shuttle flight ever, NASA has worked out plans with Russia in the event the orbiter is damaged during flight and cannot return home.

Atlantis' four person crew would stay aboard the space station and one by one come home with a landing in Kazakhstan during a Soyuz TMA's planned return.

Thus, the four astronauts would land three months after the first lands, and this plan will bring the last crew mate home nearly a year after Atlantis' launch. This is of course a worst case scenario.

Meanwhile, 220 miles above earth Atlantis' sister ship Endeavour is hours away from concluding her final space flight on Wednesday at 2:35 a.m., just as Atlantis is nearing her launch pad.

The space shuttle stack is expected to arrive a top her launch pad at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

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