NASA lines up final space shuttle flight for July

NASA Atlantis will be 135th and final space shuttle launch

NASA today said the final space shuttle flight should take place July 8 at about 11:40 am EDT from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will be the 135th and final mission of NASA's storied Space Shuttle Program

NASA said the July date is based on current planning and an official launch date will be announced following the June 28 Flight Readiness Review.  That review of course could delay the flight, since there are a few technical issues to address.

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For example, NASA says there are several non-standard activities, including a tanking test followed by an X-ray inspection of a section of the external fuel tank, which may affect Atlantis' processing. The tank consists of three sections. Mission managers want to X-ray aluminum support beams, known as stringers, located where the liquid hydrogen tank meets the intertank.

Cracked intertank stringers were found during shuttle Discovery's first launch attempt in November 2010 and delayed its launch until the problem was resolved. X-ray inspection of the intertank stringers provides additional confidence that there are no stringer cracks in Atlantis' tank. The stringers located where the liquid oxygen tank meets the intertank were modified with extra material to add strength and do not require inspection, NASA said.

Atlantis' 12-day mission is set to include delivery of the Raffaello cargo module to the International Space Station. Raffaello is about 21 feet long and 15 feet in diameter, weighing almost 4.5 tons. It can carry up to 10 tons of cargo.

The shuttle will also carry an experiment designed to demonstrate and test the tools and technologies needed to robotically refuel satellites in space. Such capabilities are seen as crucial for long-term space success.

In fact NASA recently began to solicit proposals for space gas stations, or what it calls an In-Space Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer Demonstration that will lay the ground work for humans to safely reach multiple destinations, including the Moon, asteroids, Lagrange points and Mars.

Meanwhile, Atlantis' crew is slated to bring back an ammonia pump that recently failed on the ISS. Engineers want to understand why the pump failed and improve designs for future spacecraft.

Atlantis has had a long history.  Weighing in at 151,315 pounds when it rolled out of the assembly plant, the shuttle was nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia. The ship's first mission on Oct. 3, 1985, STS 51-J was a classified payload for the U.S. Department of Defense.

According to NASA, the craft has served as the on-orbit launch site Magellan and Galileo, as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. An array of onboard science experiments took place during most missions to further enhance space research in low Earth orbit.

NASA said Atlantis pioneered the Shuttle-Mir missions, flying the first seven missions to dock with the Russian space station. When linked, Atlantis and Mir together formed the largest spacecraft in orbit at the time. The missions to Mir included the first on-orbit U.S. crew exchanges, now a common occurrence on the International Space Station. On STS-79, the fourth docking mission, Atlantis ferried astronaut Shannon Lucid back to Earth after her record-setting 188 days in orbit aboard Mir, NASA said.

Atlantis has delivered several vital components to the ISS, including the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny, as well as the Joint Airlock Quest and multiple sections of the Integrated Truss structure that makes up the Station's backbone, NASA said.

With their 30-years of space journey behind them, NASA's three orbiters are destined for museums. Atlantis' new, old home will be in the Kennedy Space Center.  Endeavour will reside at the California Science Center in Los Angeles and Discovery will be sent to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles Airport in Virginia.

NASA's Endeavour shuttle is currently on a 14-day mission to the ISS where it is  delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, a particle physics detector designed to operate from the station and search for antimatter and the origin and structure of dark matter. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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