Atlantis lifts off into history

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SUNSET JOURNEY:Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the Kennedy Space Centre on Friday.
SUNSET JOURNEY:Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the Kennedy Space Centre on Friday.

K.V. Prasad

Begins its last mission to the International Space Station

CAPE CANAVERAL (U.S.): A huge orange plume trailing behind, space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre on its last scheduled mission to the International Space Station, signalling the beginning of the end of the three-decade American programme.

As the countdown ended at 2.20 p.m. on Friday (23.50 IST), thousands of people who thronged the sprawling complex in Florida were treated to a jaw-dropping sight as the shuttle's engines pounded the launch pad lifting it into space with a thunderous roar.

Over the next few seconds the shuttle disappeared into the skies embarking on mission STS 132, ascending on what appeared like a scorching streak of sunlight. It left behind a thick cloud of smoke.

“You do not see a shuttle launch, you feel it,” Kevin Hoshstrasser, Site Director of Boeing Network and Space, told a group of Indian correspondents ahead of the launch that was cheered by an estimated 3 lakh people who descended here from various places to watch Atlantis make history.

The Obama administration decided to wind up the space shuttle programme that began with Columbia making its maiden voyage in April 1981. Between now and November this year, the last of the two shuttles, Discovery and Endeavor will carry payloads to the ISS and then make their way to museums.

Space shuttle Atlantis, mission STS-132 commandeered by U.S. Navy captain Ken Ham, during its 12-day mission, will deliver the Russian-built Mini Research Module-1 providing additional storage space and new docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. It will also deliver additional station hardware stored inside a cargo carrier.

Three space walks are planned to install components outside the station, including six spare batteries, a Ku-band antenna and spare parts for the Canadian Dextre robotic arm.

When Atlantis lands after completing mission STS-132 (Space Transport System), it would have concluded a journey of 100 million miles (1.6 lakh km). Since its maiden voyage on October 3, 1985, the space shuttle will have undertaken 32 missions during which it deployed 14 satellites, docked with Russian Mir space station on seven occasions and 11 times with the ISS.

For space shuttle astronaut Michael J. Bloomfield, who flew three missions including one as the commander, it was an emotional moment to watch Atlantis take the sunset mission.

“While the ISS and international space programme continues, I plan to be back here with my family to witness the last launch” he told correspondents.

While the ISS work carries on with support from other partners, the 80-odd astronauts of America will have to wait for their turn longer on future space endeavours.

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