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Shuttle Atlantis streaks into orbit on final planned flight

Atlantis blasts off on final planned mission, closing out 25 years of service with a flight to deliver a Russian docking module and critical spare parts to the space station.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--The shuttle Atlantis blasted off on its 32nd and final planned mission Friday, closing out 25 years of service with a 12-day flight to deliver a Russian docking module and critical spare parts to the International Space Station.

With its three hydrogen-fueled main engines roaring at full thrust, the shuttle's twin solid-fuel boosters ignited on time at 2:20 p.m. EDT, instantly pushing the fully fueled 4.5-million-pound spacecraft away from pad 39A.

Accelerating through 100 mph--straight up--in just eight seconds, Atlantis wheeled about its long axis and lined up on a trajectory paralleling the East Coast. Liftoff was timed for roughly the moment Earth's rotation carried the launch pad into the plane of the space station's orbit, the first step in a two-day rendezvous procedure.

Atlantis quickly arced away to the northeast, putting on a spectacular afternoon sky show for area residents and tourists who gathered along Florida's "Space Coast" to witness the shuttle's final planned flight.

The Florida "Space Coast" drops away below the shuttle Atlantis after liftoff. The Atlantis is on a 12-day space station assembly mission. NASA TV

Commander Kenneth Ham, pilot Dominic Antonelli, and flight engineer Michael Good monitored the shuttle's computer-controlled ascent, joined by Stephen Bowen, a former submariner, Piers Sellers, and Garrett Reisman, who spent three months aboard the space station in 2008.

"We're going to take her on her 32nd flight and if you don't mind, we'll take her out of the barn and make a few more laps around the planet," Ham radioed launch director Mike Leinbach a few minutes before takeoff.

The shuttle's ascent appeared normal with no obvious impacts from external tank foam insulation. Video from a camera mounted on the side of the tank showed a few bits of insulation separating and falling away, but by that point the shuttle was out of the dense lower atmosphere where debris impacts pose a more significant threat.

Even so, engineers will spend several days assessing launch imagery, as well as photos taken from the shuttle and subsequent heat shield inspections before giving the ship a clean bill of health for re-entry.

The primary goals of the 132nd shuttle mission are to deliver the Russian Rassvet --"dawn"--docking module, to install a spare 6-foot-wide Ku-band dish antenna system and to replace six aging batteries in one of the station's four sets of U.S. solar arrays.

If all goes well, Ham will guide Atlantis to a docking at the space station's forward port Sunday morning. The exact time is a bit uncertain because of a possible close encounter with a piece of space debris an hour or so later that could force station flight controllers to carry out a protective debris avoidance maneuver. But no major problems were anticipated.

The shuttle Atlantis climbs away from pad 39A on its final planned mission. Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Ham and his crewmates will be welcomed aboard the station by Expedition 23 commander Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi, Timothy Creamer, Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

Reisman, Good, and Bowen will work in two-man teams for three planned spacewalks to install the backup antenna, the solar array batteries, and other equipment. Sellers, who will operate the station's robot arm during the spacewalks, will assist Reisman on the arm during installation of the Russian mini-research module, or MRM-1, on the fifth day of the mission, the day after the first spacewalk.

The 17,760-pound mini-research module, or MRM, is packed with 3,086 pounds of NASA equipment and supplies and is carrying an experiment airlock and European robot arm equipment that will be attached to other modules later.

Atlantis is scheduled to undock from the station around 11:20 a.m. on May 23, setting up a landing back at the Kennedy Space Center around 8:44 a.m. on May 26.

While STS-132 is Atlantis' final planned mission, the shuttle will be processed for stand-by duty as an emergency rescue vehicle to support the shuttle Endeavour's launch late this year or early next on what is currently the program's final mission.

But NASA managers are considering the possibility of launching Atlantis on a final space station resupply mission after Endeavour's flight, using a reduced crew of four. A four-person crew could seek safe haven aboard the space station if necessary and rotate back to Earth aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, eliminating the need for a rescue mission.

NASA managers believe the benefits to the space station outweigh the marginal cost of the flight, but it remains to be seen whether such a mission will win the necessary political support. A decision is expected early this summer.

"I've personally asked the president that that's what he ought to do, fly one extra shuttle flight, because we've got the hardware, it's ready to go," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew aboard the shuttle Columbia in 1986.

"It sits for the remaining flights as a rescue shuttle and when you would fly it as the last flight, the risk would be (minimal) because even if something happened that you couldn't return to Earth, they could take safe harbor on the space station.

"So I think NASA is seriously considering it and I'm going to continue to press the White House that they ought to approve it," Nelson said.