NASA: After 25 years and 115 million miles, Atlantis set for final mission

Space shuttle launches Friday to carry Russian-built module, spare antenna to space station

Twenty-five years and 115 million miles after it was first launched, NASA's space shuttle Atlantis is set to take off on its final mission tomorrow.

Atlantis, which took off on its first mission in 1985, is scheduled to lift off on its farewell 12-day assignment with a six-person crew at 2:20 p.m. Eastern time on Friday. The craft will carry spare parts and equipment to the International Space Station.

NASA has scheduled two more shuttle missions with other craft before the program ends. The final NASA shuttle flight is now scheduled for November.

"Every single flight is important," said Mike Curie, a NASA spokesman. "There is hardware that needs to be taken up to the space station to ensure that it can operate as long as we need it to. The shuttle is uniquely capable of carrying up massive objects to the space station. There is no other spacecraft that can carry objects of the weight and size of the objects."

In its 32nd and final mission, Atlantis will ferry an 11,000-pound Russian-built mini research module to the station along with new batteries for the facility's solar array and a spare communications antenna among other items.

The research module, according to Curie, is nearly 20 feet long and eight feet wide. It will be attached to the space station to be used for storage and as extra work space.

Attaching the new module and the spare communications antenna will be the top priority of the six astronauts during three planned spacewalks.

Curie said the robotic arm onboard the Atlantis, as well as another at the space station, will be used during this mission.

"Every spacewalk is difficult and somewhat risky, because you're going out into the vacuum of space," said Curie. "The change out of the batteries is a lengthy procedure. Each one is large -- the size of a refrigerator."

This will be first time that shuttle astronauts will use a new seven-window cupola that was installed at the station in February. The cupola will provide the crew with a stellar view and serve as a central command post for the station's robotics work.

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 sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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