KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--The space shuttle Atlantis roared to life and raced into orbit Monday on a critical mission to deliver 15 tons of equipment and spare parts to the International Space Station, gear needed to protect against failures after the shuttle fleet is retired next year.
The shuttle's three hydrogen-fueled main engines fired up at 120-millisecond intervals and six seconds later, after computers verified the powerplants were operating normally, Atlantis' twin solid-fuel boosters ignited with a flash at 2:28 p.m. EST, instantly pushing the orbiter skyward.
As commander Charles Hobaugh and pilot Barry "Butch" Wilmore monitored the computer-controlled ascent, Atlantis wheeled about its vertical axis and arced away to the northeast, into the plane of the space station's orbit in the first step of a complex two-day rendezvous.
The shuttle's boosters operated normally, separating from Atlantis' external fuel tank as planned two minutes and four seconds after liftoff, and the spaceplane continued toward its planned preliminary orbit on the power of its three main engines.
A television camera mounted on the side of Atlantis' external tank provided spectacular views as the shuttle thundered toward space, showing the Florida coastline and scattered clouds dropping away below as the ship accelerated toward space.
The camera was in place to monitor the external tank's foam insulation and to look for any signs of debris impacts that might damage fragile heat shield tiles. Three small pieces of debris were spotted, but they fell off after the shuttle was well out of the dense lower atmosphere where impacts are more of a threat.
Eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the main engines shut down as planned, Atlantis separated from the now-empty external tank and the crew began preparing the ship for orbital operations.
"We really appreciate all the effort that's gone into making this launch attempt possible," Hobaugh said during a final hold in the countdown. "We're excited to take this incredible vehicle for a ride and meet up with another incredible vehicle, the International Space Station."
Joining Hobaugh and Wilmore for the 129th shuttle mission are Leland Melvin, a materials science expert and one-time pro football draft pick, and spacewalkers Michael Foreman, Randolph Bresnik, and Robert Satcher, an orthopedic surgeon with a doctorate in chemical engineering.
Hobaugh, Foreman, and Melvin are shuttle veterans while Satcher, Wilmore, and Bresnik are making their first shuttle flight. In a bit of bad timing, Bresnik's wife is scheduled to deliver the couple's second child, a girl, on November 20, while the crew is still in space.
Over the next two days, the astronauts will inspect the shuttle's heat shield, check out the spacesuits that will be used during three station excursions, and prepare Atlantis for docking with the lab complex around noon Wednesday.
The primary goals of Atlantis' flight are to bring space station flight engineer Nicole Stott back to Earth after three months in space and to deliver nearly 30,000 pounds of spare parts and equipment that would be difficult or impossible to get to the outpost after the shuttle is retired next year.
"In terms of being the flight that brings up all the spares for station, this is really full," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's director of space operations. "This flight, and a couple of the other shuttle flights that come later, really set us up very well for kind of the end of the shuttle servicing era."
Awaiting a decision by the Obama administration on what sort of spacecraft will replace the shuttle and whether the moon or some other target will be NASA's next objective, the agency is pressing ahead with the Bush administration's directive to complete the space station and end shuttle flights by the end of 2010.
The International Space Station currently is only funded through 2015, but there appears to be widespread political support to extend operations through 2020. That would mean operating the lab complex for 10 years without the shuttle and its cavernous cargo bay to deliver large spare parts and other components.
With just six missions left on NASA's shuttle manifest between now and the end of fiscal 2010, Atlantis' mission is one of two devoted primarily to delivering critical spare parts and equipment--orbital replacement units, or ORUs--that are too large to be delivered by European, Russian, or Japanese cargo ships.
"We're looking for the long-term outfitting of station," said Hobaugh. "Our flight is one of the first flights that externally will provide a lot of those spare parts and long-lead-type replacement items that are required to keep it healthy and running for quite some time."
Mounted on pallets in Atlantis' payload bay are two spare gyroscopes used to control the station's orientation in space; a high-pressure oxygen tank for the station's airlock; and a spare pump module, nitrogen tank, and an ammonia reservoir for the lab's cooling system.
The pallets also carry a replacement robot arm latching end effector, or mechanical hand; a spare power cable spool used by the arm's mobile transporter; a solar-array battery charge-discharge unit; and a device used to prevent potentially dangerous electrical arcs between the station and the electrically charged extreme upper atmosphere.
A box housing spare circuit breakers that can be installed by the station's robot arm and a Canadian robot known as DEXTRE is mounted on one of the pallets and a materials exposure experiment carried aloft in the shuttle's cargo bay will be mounted on ELC-2 during the crew's final spacewalk.
Atlantis also is carrying a spare S-band antenna assembly, along with supplies for the lab's six-member crew, gear for an amateur radio experiment, and a system that can be used to track ships at sea.
The two cargo pallets will be mounted on the left and right sides of the station's main solar power truss and plugged into the lab's electrical grid to power heaters and provide telemetry. The new oxygen tank will be attached to the station's airlock during a spacewalk. The rest of the hardware will simply sit, waiting for the day it might be needed.
"It is establishing critical spares on board the International Space Station," said lead shuttle Flight Director Mike Sarafin. "We're going to warehouse parts that only the shuttle can deliver in large volume to the International Space Station for the pending retirement of the space shuttle, roughly a year from now."
After the shuttle is retired, supplies and equipment will be delivered to the International Space Station by unmanned Russian Progress spacecraft, the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, Japan's new HTV cargo carrier, and commercial providers now in the process of designing future vehicles.
But none of the unmanned cargo ships is capable of delivering the very large components routinely carried by the space shuttle that are too big to pass through the station's hatches. Most of the spares being launched aboard Atlantis have no other way of getting to the station.
The shuttle also provides a way to bring failed components back to Earth for repairs or refurbishment. Atlantis, for example, will bring down components in the space station's urine recycling system that have encountered problems in recent weeks.
The station crew has enough fresh water and stowage to get along with no major problems until refurbished hardware can be launched on an upcoming shuttle flight. But the issue illustrates the sort of capability that will be lost when the shuttle is retired.
"This is why these (spare components) need to fly now on the shuttle," said station Flight Director Brian Smith. "There's no other way to get these ORUs ... to the ISS. And these are all critical spares. You can tell by what their function is we have to have these pre-positioned because they all serve vital roles on the space station."