Video: Watch NASA's final shuttle mission

By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/14/2011 8:43:55 PM ET 2011-07-15T00:43:55

On the first full day of a remarkably smooth flight, the space shuttle Atlantis' crew checked out their ship's protective skin in near-record time Saturday.

The astronauts conducted a detailed survey of Atlantis' tiles in just under five hours — about an hour and a half less than the job was expected. That meant they could get some extra rest and relaxation at the end of their day. That was in keeping with the theme so far for NASA's last-ever space shuttle flight.

"The performance of this particular crew on this set of activities is probably near record-breaking," said Kwatsi Alibaruho, the lead flight director for Atlantis' resupply mission to the International Space Station.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

The post-launch inspection was added to the routine for every shuttle mission after the 2003 Columbia tragedy, when an undetected breach in the leading edge of Columbia's left wing led to the catastophic breakup of the orbiter and the loss of its seven-member crew.

Atlantis' crew is limited to four astronauts as an indirect consequence of that accident. If the shuttle had been so seriously damaged during ascent that it couldn't make an atmospheric re-entry, the astronauts would have to be rescued by a series of Russian Soyuz craft. Usually, a rescue shuttle would be standing by for launch — but because Atlantis is the last shuttle standing, there are no spares.

Critical areas of the shuttle were scanned by a camera and sensors mounted on the end of a 50-foot-long (15-meter-long) inspection boom, which in turn was mounted on the shuttle's robotic arm.

While the astronauts were at work, they got words of praise from Mission Control. "It's really a pleasure watching you guys work today," spaceflight communicator Steve Robinson told the crew.

LeRoy Cain, head of NASA's mission management team, said he and his colleagues were focusing on "finishing strong."

"We wanted the last flight to be the safest flight that we fly. We wanted the performance of the vehicle to be the best it's ever been," Cain said. "I think you're seeing it play out."

The small size of the crew may be a factor behind the smoothness of the flight, Alibaruho said. Conditions are less cramped, the air quality is better and the temperature tends to be more comfortable. Also, all four of the astronauts are veterans, and thus were less likely to suffer from space sickness — a feeling of nausea and dizziness that afflicts many spacefliers in the first days of a mission.

Alibaruho cautioned, however, that Atlantis' last mission had just begun. "This is Flight Day 2," he said. "We've got plenty more opportunities to fall behind and experience problems, but we'll do our best to avoid that."

Initial indications were that no significant damage was done to the shuttle during Friday's ascent. Over the next few days, experts on the ground will be closely checking the inspection imagery as well as high-resolution pictures that are to be taken just before Atlantis' docking with the International Space Station on Sunday.

The top objectives of Atlantis' mission are to transfer tons of supplies for the space station, drop off a contraption that will be used to test techniques for refueling satellites in space, and bring back a broken coolant pump module from the space station.

NASA
A video frame from NASA TV shows the view of Earth from orbit, with the shuttle Atlantis' tail sticking up from the bottom of the frame and its robotic arm sticking down from the top.

Mission managers say they are close to being able to extend the shuttle flight from 12 days to 13 days, needing to find just one more hour of on-orbit power to put off landing until July 21. That is usually accomplished by conserving energy on board.

Alibaruho said he expected a decision on extending the mission to come by Monday. "I think we will probably get there,' he said.

Atlantis' landing will end 30 years of space shuttle flights. After the Columbia accident, NASA and the White House decided to retire the fleet and shift funds over to the development of new spaceships for going beyond Earth orbit.

Contractors are already working on the capsule for such missions, known as the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, and an announcement on NASA's next-generation, heavy-lift rocket is expected within weeks.

After Atlantis, Soyuz spacecraft will be used to transfer astronauts to and from the space station, at an estimated cost of $50 million a seat. Russian, European and Japanese robotic transports will carry cargo. Eventually, U.S-made commercial vehicles — developed with NASA support — will be used for NASA's cargo as well as station-bound crew.

Every step of Atlantis' mission is imbued with the sense that this is a farewell tour for the shuttle: On Saturday, the morning's wake-up song — Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" — was accompanied by a mass greeting from employees at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which focuses on the shuttle's propulsion system.

"We wish you a successful mission and a safe return home," the workers said in their pre-recorded message.

Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley responded, "Thanks for that great message and awesome ride to orbit and the 134 before that with this tremendous space shuttle program."

This report includes information from The Associated Press.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

loading photos...
  1. Atlantis rising

    The space shuttle Atlantis makes its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, for the Defense Department's STS-51-J mission. At 176,413 pounds, Atlantis is nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, which was the heaviest shuttle. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 3 pounds less than the shuttle Endeavour (with the three main engines). Atlantis is also the last space shuttle to be retired.

    Other statistics:
    Length: 122.17 feet
    Height: 56.58 feet
    Wingspan: 78.06 feet (Phil Sandlin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First of its kind

    NASA's Magellan spacecraft is deployed from Atlantis' cargo bay in 1989 during the STS-30 mission. The Venus orbiter was the first interplanetary probe launched from a space shuttle. Later that year, Atlantis launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mission to Mir

    NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation during the STS-71 mission in June 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia's Mir space station for the first time. This historic photo of the linked spacecraft was taken from a Russian Soyuz capsule during a fly-around. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Here's looking at you

    The space shuttle Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in September 1996. This dramatic view, looking directly down onto the shuttle stack, was taken from the roof of the 525-foot-tall VAB. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Science in orbit

    Astronaut Shannon Lucid floats through the tunnel that connects Spacelab to Atlantis' cabin on Sept. 24, 1996. The Spacelab module rode in the shuttle's cargo bay and provided more space for scientific experiments. During this STS-79 mission, Atlantis linked up with Russia's Mir space station and brought Lucid back to Earth. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Lighting up the night

    Atlantis streaks into the early morning sky from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 15, 1997, as seen in this long-exposure photo taken from Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Fla. Atlantis' 10-day STS-84 mission featured a docking with Russia's Mir space station and a crew transfer. Atlantis docked with Mir seven times before the space station was deorbited in 2001. (Brian Cleary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Good as new

    The space shuttle Atlantis went back to its assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., for 10 months of refurbishment and upgrades in 1997-1998. This aerial photo shows Atlantis taking a piggyback ride back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 jet on Sept. 1, 1998. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Checking it out

    Atlantis' upgraded cockpit gets a once-over in 1999 from engineers and executives, including Roy Bridges, Kennedy Space Center's director (seated at bottom left), as well as Laural Patrick, Joann Morgan and George Selina. The upgrades made Atlantis the most modern orbiter in the shuttle fleet, with a control system as advanced as those found on commercial jet airliners and military aircraft. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tile tune-up

    Izeal Battle, a worker from United Space Alliance, repairs heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 30, 2004. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Back in business

    Atlantis' astronauts leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board the "Astrovan" for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B on Sept. 8, 2006, while gun-toting guards keep watch. A faulty fuel gauge grounded the shuttle for an extra day, but on Sept. 9 the shuttle lifted off on its STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. It marked Atlantis' first launch since 2002. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff!

    The space shuttle Atlantis rises on a pillar of cloud from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, 2006. Atlantis delivered structural components to the International Space Station during its STS-115 mission, resuming an orbital construction project that was stopped following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mission accomplished

    The clouds of Earth provide a backdrop for Atlantis shortly after its departure from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2006. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Night landing

    Atlantis lands amid darkness at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 21, 2006, bringing the STS-115 space station construction mission to a successful close. (Chris O'Meara / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kicking the tires

    Atlantis crew members Chris Ferguson and Dan Burbank look over their spaceship after landing at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 21, 2006. Ferguson was slated to be Atlantis' commander for NASA's final space shuttle mission. (Pierre Ducharme / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Blaze of glory

    The space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters light up for launch on June 8, 2007, beginning a flight to the International Space Station. This STS-117 mission marked the 250th orbital human spaceflight. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Watching the ascent

    NASA mission managers monitor Atlantis' liftoff from Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16, 2009. During the STS-129 mission, Atlantis delivered a payload platform and vital supplies to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Shuttle skywriting

    Nearly an hour after launch, contrails from the shuttle Atlantis' liftoff float above the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 8, 2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Last visit to Hubble

    Spacewalkers Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld work on the Hubble Space Telescope on May 16, 2009, during Atlantis' STS-125 mission. This marked the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Making a list

    Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino writes notes on a checklist during the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission on May 18, 2009. During this mission, Massimino became the first astronaut to send a Twitter update from orbit: "Launch was awesome!!" (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. First Family meets Atlantis

    NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia beneath the shuttle Atlantis during a tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2011. At the time, Atlantis was being prepared for its final flight. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Final flight

    Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. The shuttle fleet's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, brought supplies to the international space station. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Witnessing history

    Spectators watch the liftoff of Atlantis on its final mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Last rendezvous

    The space shuttle Atlantis docks with the International Space Station for the last time on July 10, 2011. The shuttle delivered more than four tons of food, clothes and other supplies to keep the space station going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned at least through the end of 2012. (NASA TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flight into history

    This poster pays tribute to the shuttle Atlantis' quarter-century of spaceflight: Graphic elements include the International Space Station and Russia's Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope (which Atlantis visited during the last servicing mission) and Venus and Jupiter (which were the destinations for probes launched from Atlantis). Threaded through the design are the mission patches for each of Atlantis' flights. A copy of this tribute poster hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Amy Lombardo / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre. 'After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It's come to a final stop,' Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied. (Nasa / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz, left, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land on July 21, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 21, 2011. The Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  2. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close
  3. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments