July 11, 2011

Atlantis Successfully Docks With ISS For Last Time

Space shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station (ISS) for the final time on Sunday, bringing the 30-year, $200 billion legacy of the venerable NASA craft one step closer to a close.

"¨Reporting from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Irene Klotz of Reuters wrote that the STS-135 commander, Chris Ferguson, docked in the ISS Harmony node shortly just a few minutes after 11am EDT.

"¨At 12:47pm, the four-person crew (Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim) departed from the spacecraft and passes through the station's airlock, two days after what she referred to as an "emotional" launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

"¨It was the 135th flight for the shuttle program, and the 46th time one of the interstellar vehicles had docked with an orbital space facility, dating back to the Mir in 1995.

"¨"Welcome to the International Space Station for the last time," ISS flight engineer Ron Garan radioed to the crew, according to both Klotz and AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn--the latter of which noted that Ferguson replied, "And it's great to be here."

"¨"Cries of joy and laughter filled the connected vessels once the hatches swung open and the two crews--10 space fliers altogether representing three countries--exchanged hugs, handshakes and kisses on the cheek. Cameras floated everywhere, recording every moment of the last-of-its-kind festivities," Dunn added.

"¨The Associated Press (AP) noted that Atlantis delivered a full year's worth of food, clothing, and other supplies for the international crew members currently on board the ISS.

"¨Shortly after arriving on the space station, "Ferguson and Hurley used the shuttle arm to take its 50-foot extension boom from the station's Canadarm2 operated by station Flight Engineers Ron Garan and Satoshi Furukawa," NASA said in a statement Sunday. "The station arm had plucked the boom from its stowage position on the shuttle cargo bay sill. The handoff was to prepare to use the boom for any needed shuttle heat shield inspection later this week. Magnus worked with TV setup and Walheim transferred spacewalk gear."

"¨"Docking had gone just as planned. Ferguson and the crew of space shuttle Atlantis began their final approach to the station from about eight miles distance with the terminal initiation burn at 8:29 a.m.," the US aeronautics agency added. "About 600 feet below the station, Atlantis did a backflip to enable station crew members to photograph the shuttle's heat shield. The photos were sent to mission control to be evaluated by experts on the ground to look for any damage."

"¨Kwatsi Alibaruho, the lead flight director at Mission Control, called the docking "a powerful moment."

"¨"I won't say that I got close to welling up in the eyes," Alibaruho told reporters afterwards, according to Dunn. However, he added that he could "sense a palpable increase in emotion from all of the crew members, not just our U.S. astronauts," he said.

"¨"They were extremely happy and really elated to see their visitors, and I know that they really recognize and appreciate the significance of these moments," he said. "I know they were all feeling very similar emotions, thinking about where we've come from, how much we've accomplished"¦ what's coming next."

"¨On Saturday, prior to the docking, Chris Baltimore of Reuters reported that the Atlantis crew had to inspect the heat shields on the shuttle's nose and wings for damage.

"¨The inspections, which Baltimore notes have been required during each shuttle mission since the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that resulted in the death of all seven astronauts on board, were conducted using the shuttle's robotic arm.

"¨"Atlantis and its crew will spend more than a week at the orbiting complex," said Dunn. "The shuttle flight currently is scheduled to last 12 days, but NASA likely will add a 13th day to give the astronauts extra time to complete all their chores."


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