CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With 100 Internet-savvy NASA fans cheering on the shuttle and churning out constant Twitter updates, Atlantis sailed smoothly into orbit Monday with six astronauts and a full load of spare parts for the International Space Station.
The supply run should keep the space station humming for years to come, and the shuttle astronauts in space through Thanksgiving.
Atlantis was clearly visible as it shot through thin afternoon clouds, to the delight of Twittering space enthusiasts who won front-row seats to the launch. The contest winners splashed news — mostly tweeting “wow” and “amazing” about the liftoff — over countless cell phones and computers in 140 characters or less.
“What’s exciting to me is that they’ve captured the spirit and the excitement that we all feel, and they were able to capture it in a very few number of characters,” NASA space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier said with a chuckle. “They’re amazing, little, short statements about what they felt.”
Atlantis will reach the space station Wednesday. As the shuttle blasted off, the station was soaring 220 miles above the South Pacific. Launch director Mike Leinbach wished the astronauts good luck and said, “We’ll see you back here just after Thanksgiving.”
“We’re excited to take this incredible vehicle for a ride and meet up with another incredible vehicle,” Hobaugh replied.
NASA wants to stockpile as many pumps, tanks, gyroscopes and other oversize equipment as possible at the space station, before the three remaining shuttles retire next fall. None of the other visiting spacecraft is big enough to carry so many large pieces.
The space agency expects to keep the space station flying until 2015, possibly 2020 if President Barack Obama gives the go-ahead.
Tons of equipment and experiments
During their 11-day flight, Hobaugh and his crew — including the first orthopedic surgeon in space, Dr. Robert Satcher Jr. — will unload 27,250 pounds (12,360 kilograms) of equipment and experiments. Most of the gear will be attached to the outside of the space station on storage platforms.
Three spacewalks will be conducted beginning Thursday to hook everything up and get a jump on the next shuttle flight.
The launch seemed to go perfectly. Only three small pieces of foam insulation were spotted coming off the fuel tank, and it was not a concern, NASA's Gerstenmaier said.
“What a great way to start this mission,” he told reporters. But he cautioned that the flight ahead was tough and “we need to stay focused.”
While NASA officials were pleased, the Twittering invitees were downright ecstatic. They were among the first to sign up online last month for the opportunity to see a launch up close, and filed Twitter updates practically nonstop.
“The wifi and cellular networks are so bogged down with excited tweets that it is hard to get messages out,” posted Laura Burns, 33, a Columbia, Md., software systems engineer.
Outreach during shuttle's last days
NASA estimates the 100 tweeters, or tweeps as they’re called, have a following of more than 150,000. The space agency sees it as a beneficial outreach program, especially as the shuttle program winds down and the future remains murky.
Video: Obama on health care Obama has yet to chart a course for American astronauts, beyond the shuttle and station. A moon rocket under development is supposed to replace the shuttle, but the lunar exploration program is in jeopardy.
This is NASA’s last shuttle flight of the year and one of only six remaining. “Five to go ... it’s starting to hit home, I have to admit,” Leinbach said.
Satcher and another Atlantis astronaut, Leland Melvin, are chronicling the flight online using Twitter, with Satcher writing under the name Astro_Bones and Melvin as Astro_Flow. "Wish us luck," Melvin wrote just a few hours before launch.
In addition to Hobaugh, Satcher and Melvin, Atlantis' crew members include pilot Barry "Butch" Wilmore and mission specialists Mike Foreman and Randy Bresnik. Wilmore, Satcher and Bresnik are making their first trips to space.
If all goes as planned, the six spacemen will return to Earth on the day after Thanksgiving, bringing home a seventh astronaut, Nicole Stott, who has been living at the space station since the end of August.
The astronauts will have to forgo the usual Thanksgiving fare. NASA did not pack any special dinners aboard Atlantis. Hobaugh didn’t want any. "The season is whatever the season is," he explained during a preflight interview. "We're just always pleased to be in space. I don't care what they give us."
If the astronauts want poultry on Thanksgiving, they’ll have to settle for turkey tetrazzini in rehydratable pouches or thermostabilized chicken fajitas. There’s also plenty of barbecued beef brisket.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.
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