This is not only the final liftoff for this shuttle, but it's the last flight of the United States' 30-year space shuttle program. The four-person crew will be heading to the International Space Station on a resupply mission.
Liftoff is set for Friday, July 8th at 11:26am, but forecasters from the Kennedy Space Center are tracking a weather system which could bring showers and thunderstorms around launch time-- and would ground Atlantis until the weekend. Record crowds of between 750,000 to 1 million people are expected to flock to Florida’s “Space Coast” for the spectacle. And NASA is factoring those crowds into its backup liftoff plans. If there are too many people in the area, it could be difficult for shuttle workers to make a 24-hour turnaround to liftoff in the case of bad weather or technical issues.
This is the 135th space shuttle mission -- and originally it was not scheduled to happen. The 134th was flown by the Endeavour, and Atlantis was slated to be its rescue shuttle. Now Atlantis has no backup shuttle to fly to orbit if problems should arise. The plan is to use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station, but that could leave some astronauts stranded for up to a year.
After Atlantis lands and the shuttle program ends, the US will lose its ability to launch American astronauts into space on American rockets. Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said planning for private space companies to pick up some of the launch burden is a good thing, but he lamented that the next US space vehicle is not ready to go.
"If they (astronauts) have a problem, then we can't get to the Space Station, and therefore the Space Station would be in jeopardy after a period of time," he said. "I see it as a policy issue, where you're shutting down a system before the next system is up and running. If I were in charge -- and I'm not -- but if I were in charge I'd do it the other way. I wouldn't shut down the shuttle system until the next system was up and running so we could guarantee access to the space station."
"We're losing a bit of our American identity by shutting the system down," said Leinbach, as he reflected on the final moments of the shuttle era. "The shuttle is an American icon. Anywhere in the world if people pay attention to the news and see the Shuttle launch they know that's America launching that Shuttle. No one else does that, and now we won't either."
He added that the loss of prestige is overshadowed by the large number of people who will be losing their jobs after the shuttle program ends.
Plans for a shuttle-like vehicle reach back to the late 1960s, although it took more than a decade between the initial concepts and the first shuttle launch in 1981. In terms of space transit, the shuttle is unique because of its reusable nature. Leinbach said originally it was thought NASA would be able to put two shuttles a month into orbit, but the reality was each orbiter could be launched only about twice a year. Still, the vehicle is special because of its cargo carrying capabilities. The shuttle's cargo bay is about 60 feet long and has carried payloads like the Hubble Space Telescope and launched numerous satellites into orbit.
You can learn more about the shuttle program, as well as its final mission, over at WMFE.