Video: Watch NASA's final shuttle mission

By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/10/2011 3:19:58 PM ET 2011-07-10T19:19:58

Atlantis made the final docking of the 30-year space shuttle program on Sunday, hooking up with the International Space Station for a final resupply rendezvous.

Aboard the station, NASA astronaut Ron Garan rang a bell to mark the shuttle's arrival in traditional naval fashion.

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"Atlantis arriving," he declared. "Welcome to the International Space Station for the last time."

"And it's great to be here," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied.

During this 135th and final space shuttle mission, Atlantis is delivering more than four tons of food, clothes, spare parts, experiments and other space station supplies to keep the complex going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned through the end of next year.

Computer glitch and potential space junk
The mission's lead flight director, Kwatsi Alibaruho, said Atlantis' crew encountered a "slight problem" well before the docking sequence when one of the shuttle's computers failed during the morning power-up. He explained that the computers' on-off switches "can be a little bit temperamental from time to time." If they're not flipped on decisively, that could create a glitch — which is apparently what happened on Sunday.

The shuttle uses three computers simultaneously to provide redundancy, and the glitchy computer was "voted out" and taken offline. Alibaruho expected that a Monday-morning reset would put the system right again. He also noted that the shuttle has two spare computers, just in case there's a hard failure.

Later in the day, mission management team leader LeRoy Cain said a piece of space junk might come close to the docked shuttle and station on Tuesday, the same day that the sole spacewalk of Atlantis' mission is scheduled to take place.

Cain didn't yet have details about the trajectory or precise nature of the debris, but he said that if the orbital path came too close, the shuttle could fire its thrusters to move the station out of the way.

'Powerful moment'
Alibaruho said Sunday was a "big game day" because of the last shuttle docking, and the gravity of the occasion sank in among members of the flight team at Johnson Space Center in Texas.

"It was a powerful moment for me. ... I was not feeling sadness, but that understandable and common and sober anticipation of what's coming next," Alibaruho told journalists.

This was the 46th docking by a space shuttle to a space station. Nine of those were to Russia's Mir station back in the mid-1990s. The U.S. and Russia built on that sometimes-precarious experience to create, along with a dozen other nations, the world's largest spacecraft ever: the permanently inhabited, finally completed, 12-year-old International Space Station.

Ferguson was at the controls as Atlantis closed in, leading the smallest astronaut crew since 1983.

Only four are flying aboard Atlantis, as NASA kept the crew to a minimum in case of an emergency. In the unlikely event that Atlantis was seriously damaged, the shuttle astronauts would need to move into the space station for months and rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to get back home. Since the 2003 Columbia tragedy, a shuttle had always been kept on standby for a possible rescue, but that's no longer feasible with Discovery and Endeavour officially retired now.

Image: International Space Station
NASA
A video view captured from the shuttle Atlantis shows the International Space Station during the approach for Sunday's docking.

NASA said Atlantis seemed free of significant damage. But as a safeguard, the shuttle performed a final backflip for the space station cameras, an hour before the 230-mile-high (370-kilometer-high) linkup. The station astronauts captured high-resolution photos of the shuttle's protective tiles during the maneuver.

The orbital ballet move was executed without a hitch. "Poetry in motion," NASA mission commentator Rob Navias said. Over the next couple of days, experts on the ground will scrutinize the digital images for any signs of damage that might have come from fuel tank foam, ice or other launch debris.

Two hours after the docking, Atlantis' crew of four floated into the space station for a round of hugs and picture-taking with the space station's six-member crew. Because of the shuttle fleet's retirement, it could well be years before so many people are in space together again.

'Antlantis' crew has big moving job
After familiarizing themselves with the station, Atlantis' crew was due to transfer an inspection boom to the shuttle's robotic arm and then prepare for Monday's primary task: using the station's robotic arm to move the Raffaello logistics module out of the shuttle's payload bay and hook it up to the station for the cargo transfer.

Alibaruho said astronauts would have to hustle to move "bag upon bag upon bag" of supplies from Atlantis into the space station over the next week or so.

"It'll be almost like watching an army of ants moving across an anthill, carrying their cargo, except the astronauts are ... considerably bigger," he said.

Atlantis' mission currently is scheduled to last 12 days, but NASA is expected to add a 13th day to give the astronauts extra time for the moving chores. Alibaruho said the decision would probably come on Tuesday, once mission managers were absolutely sure Atlantis had enough power-generating capacity to support the extension. Unlike the now-retired Discovery and Endeavour, Atlantis does not have the ability to draw power from the space station.

Cain said space station managers almost certainly will have some extra "job-jar items" for Atlantis' crew. "It's like your list that you have at home," he said. "There's always work to be done on the house."

What happens after the shuttles?
This is the last chance to have some extra help around the space station, which now provides more living space than a typical five-bedroom house. NASA is getting out of the launching-to-orbit business and giving the three remaining shuttles to museums so it can start working on human trips to asteroids and Mars.

With NASA's support, U.S. companies are developing next-generation spaceships to make space station delivery runs and eventually carry astronauts as well. In the meantime, NASA will have to rely on Russian spacecraft to transport supplies and astronauts, along with Japanese and European robotic cargo transports.

Some observers — including former NASA astronauts — have voiced fears that the shuttle's end will mean the end of U.S. spaceflight as well. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sought to counter that perception on Sunday during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" program. He said the United States would remain the world leader in space exploration even after the shuttles stop flying.

"I would encourage the American public to listen to the president," Bolden said. "The president has set the goals: an asteroid in 2025, Mars in 2030. I can't get any more definitive than that."

This report includes information from The Associated Press' Marcia Dunn.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

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  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
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  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

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