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May 13, 2010

Atlantis Readies For Final Lift-Off Friday

Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to launch this Friday on its final mission, ending its 25-year career.

The STS-132 mission is the final voyage for Atlantis, which first launched in 1985.  The mission will include six astronauts delivering an integrated cargo carrier and a Russian-built mini research module to the International Space Station.

The launch is scheduled for 2:20 p.m. EDT from Kennedy Space Center close to Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It will be a poignant moment for NASA as the U.S. space agency counts down the last mission for the Atlantis.

"The vehicle is in great shape... and from a Space Shuttle Program and ISS Program standpoint, we're ready to launch Atlantis and get this mission under way," NASA launch manager Mike Moses told the AFP news agency.

His team gave Atlantis a unanimous "go" for liftoff and weather forecasts were 70 percent favorable, reflecting some concern over possible low clouds.

The mission will last 13 days, most of which will be spent attached to the ISS.  Atlantis and the crew will deliver over 12 tons of equipment, including power storage batteries, a communications antenna and a radiator.

The Rassver research module, or MRM-1, is also being delivered and it will provide additional storage space and a new docking port for the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecrafts.

The Rassver carries important hardware on its exterior, including a radiator, airlock and a European robotic arm.

Three spacewalks of six-and-a-half hours each are scheduled during the mission.

Upon the mission's completion, only two more shuttles will remain among NASA's fleet, Discovery and Endeavour.

NASA pushed back Endeavour's launch to November in order to modify an experiment module that is to be attached to the ISS.

It was originally scheduled for July 29, but it now will launch "no earlier than mid-November 2010" so that scientists can upgrade a magnet in the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer program to a longer-lasting device.

The rescheduling did not affect the launch of Atlantis but the move means Endeavour now replaces Discovery as the last shuttle launch.  The Discovery launch is set for September 16.

The U.S. will have to rely on Russia in order to take astronauts to the station aboard the three-seater Soyuz spacecraft until a new fleet of commercial space taxis becomes operational.

President Barack Obama effectively abandoned plans laid down by his predecessor George W. Bush to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and perhaps to Mars with a new generation of rocket and spacecraft.

Obama submitted a budget to Congress that encouraged NASA to focus on developing commercial transport alternatives to ferry astronauts to the ISS after the shuttle program ends.

Obama set a bold new course for the future of U.S. space travel by laying out a vision to send American astronauts into Mars orbit within the next three decades.

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