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Atlantis makes historic last flight to ISS

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Atlantis soars into the sky from Kennedy Space Centre on Friday. A NASA photo

WASHINGTON (BNS): Embarking on its final space mission, NASA’s Atlantis soared into the sky from Florida on Friday, brining the decades-old US space shuttle programme to an end.

The spacecraft lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre at 1129 local time (1529 GMT) despite a bleak weather forecast of thunderstorms and could. Clear skies at Florida during last minutes aided the shuttle launch with the STS-135 mission.

Carrying four crew members – Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus – Atlantis is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday.

During its 12-day mission, it will deliver several science experiments, including the Robotic Refueling Mission that has been designed to demonstrate a way to refuel satellites robotically on orbit.

Over the next 12 days, Atlantis's crew will conduct research into robotic refuelling techniques, and Canadian robotics will be a big player in those tests.

The spacecraft is also carrying for the first time two iPhone 4 smartphones loaded with applications to help astronauts perform experiments in space.

The shuttle is scheduled to return to Earth on July 20 after which it will retire and become a museum piece in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Atlantis (Orbiter Vehicle Designation OV-104) – the fourth operational space shuttle built by NASA – made its first space flight on October 3, 1985. In its first ISS mission, the spacecraft had carried the STS 51-J, with a classified payload for the US Department of Defense (DoD).

During its over 25 years of service, Atlantis has conducted a total of 31 space flights; remained in orbit for 282 days; travelled a total distance of 116 million miles; made 4,462 Earth orbits; and carried 185 crew members to space.

The last mission is set to add 12 days, 186 orbits, 4 million miles and four astronauts to this glorious list.

Atlantis has also been the on-orbit launch platform for many spacecraft, including the Magellan spacecraft sent to Venus, Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter, and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

Friday’s launch was the 135th space shuttle flight for the 30-year-old US space shuttle programme that will draw the curtains after Atlantis touches down Earth on July 20.

NASA's space shuttle programme was born in January 1972 and the first flight took place on April 12, 1981. Afterwards, the five-shuttle fleet became NASA’s workhorse vehicles to launch space missions.

NASA will now rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the space station till it gets the next-generation space capsules from private space firms like SpaceX and Boeing.

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