Atlantis blasts off on historic last mission

Beginning of the end for 30-year shuttle program as robots, iPhone soar into space

space shuttle Atlantis
The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Reuters/Scott Audette)

Space shuttle Atlantis soared into space late this morning, marking the beginning of the end of NASA's 30-year shuttle program.

The shuttle, which is flying its 33rd mission, blasted off on what will be the final space flight for not only Atlantis but for the entire space shuttle fleet. Atlantis quickly reached orbit after its 11:26 a.m. EDT liftoff and headed off on a 13-day resupply mission to the International Space Station.

"This is the start of a sentimental journey into history," said a NASA commentator moments after the shuttle lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "Atlantis is flexing its muscles one final time."

The shuttle and its four-person crew are bringing experiments, supplies and spare parts to the space station. NASA has been stocking the station with supplies since the shuttles will no longer be able to ferry them up to the orbiter.

A major part of the mission for Atlantis and its crew is to bring up experiments that will further scientists' understanding of how humans and robots can work together in space exploration. NASA has long maintained that as astronauts travel deeper into space -- going to the moon, an asteroid or even Mars -- they will rely more heavily on robotic counterparts.

One of the experiments that the crew is bringing is called the Robotic Refueling Mission, a washing machine-size piece of equipment that will help figure out the best way for a robot to refuel satellites in space.

Brian Roberts, a robotic demonstration and test manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said he hopes that robots will be able to refuel satellites in space within five to 10 years. The experiment traveling onboard Atlantis is key to making that happen.

"What have we learned in robotics in 30 years? This is it. It's all led up to this," said Roberts. "We've practiced on the ground but we need to see how this would work floating around in space ... We'll learn a lot of what works well and what doesn't work. We're trying to show the capabilities of robots and their abilities to do these tasks."

The experiment, which has tools, knobs and an interface that mirrors most satellites, will be attached to the station's $200 million Dextre robotic arm on the outside of the orbiter. Dextre will then be able to use its own four tools, as well as the tools on the experiment module, to manipulate the interface and see what the challenges would be for a robot to handle space refueling.

Roberts said ultimately there could be a refueling depot orbiting Earth and where satellites could be refueled. The satellite would be directed to the depot and a robotic arm on the station would reach out and pull the satellite in for refueling.

On the other hand, the refueling mechanism might be more like a tugboat, which goes to the satellites and refuels them in their normal orbit.

"I think this will show the community what robots can do, " Roberts said. "It's all very exciting. This is exactly why I came to NASA Goddard."

NASA also is sending the first iPhone into space onboard Atlantis. According to the space agency, Odyssey Space Research, a Texas-based company, has built an iPhone app that should enable astronauts to track the results of various experiments and might even aid with navigation. The phone will be kept on the space station for use there.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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