FAQ: Space shuttle Atlantis

NASA's space shuttle Atlantis ended its final mission on July 21, 2011. The mission also marked the end of NASA's 30-year-old space shuttle program.
The space shuttle Atlantis sits on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on June 17, 2011, in preparation for its final takeoff on July 8. (Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty)

NASA's space shuttle Atlantis ended its final mission on July 21, 2011. The mission also marked the end of NASA's 30-year-old space shuttle program.

Designated as Orbiter Vehicle 104 by NASA, the spacecraft was the fourth of five to be built as part of the shuttle program. Construction on Atlantis began in 1980 and the shuttle made its maiden flight in 1985.

Atlantis's final mission

Atlantis's crew prepares for their final day of training on June 23. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

Atlantis's 33rd and final mission, STS-135, lifted off on July 8, 2011, from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The primary goal of the 12-day mission was to deliver the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module to the International Space Station. The module was filled with supplies and spare parts meant to help keep the ISS running well after the end of the shuttle program, until as late as 2020.

Because the shuttle needed to carry several years' worth of supplies to the ISS, Atlantis launched with a reduced crew of only four astronauts. The last time a shuttle mission flew with so few crewmembers was when Challenger flew STS-6 in April 1983.

Atlantis's final mission was headed by Cmdr. Christopher Ferguson, a veteran of three shuttle missions.

"It's kind of hard to believe we're giving this up," Ferguson told The Associated Press before the mission.

"We're going to look upon this final mission as a celebration of all that the space shuttle has accomplished over its 30-year life span."

When did Atlantis enter service?

Its first mission began on Oct. 3, 1985, at 11:15 a.m. ET.

What was the primary goal of the mission?

Atlantis spent four days in space delivering a payload of classified U.S. Department of Defence cargo, widely believed to be a pair of military communications satellites. Only a few shuttle missions were designated by the American military for exclusively defence-related purposes.

What were some of Atlantis's key missions?

Atlantis had a very busy year in 1989, deploying two interplanetary unmanned probes in separate shuttle launches. On May 4 of that year, Atlantis carried the Venus-bound Magellan probe into space. Magellan's major achievement was to map the surface of Venus.

Five months later, on Oct. 18, the shuttle carried the Galileo probe into space. That probe then began a six-year journey to the planet Jupiter, where it spent eight years gathering crucial information on the Jupiter's lunar system.

In 1995, Atlantis became the first shuttle to dock with the Russian space station Mir. The mission marked several milestones for space travel. It created the largest spacecraft to orbit at that time, was NASA's 100th manned space flight and was the first time that crew members were sent to space as relief for cosmonauts already in orbit.

More recently, Atlantis flew a successful seven-member maintenance mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. In slightly less than 13 days, the shuttle and its crew installed new IMAX cameras, batteries and gyroscopes in order to extend the Hubble's lifespan until 2014, when NASA plans to replace it.

The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 14, 2010. (Bruce Weaver/AFT/Getty)
Why is the Atlantis being retired?

After 30 years of service, NASA had planned to scrap its space shuttle program in 2010. Three aging shuttles — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — were to be decommissioned in order to make way for the next generation of spacecraft. Retirement of the space shuttle program was later extended until 2011.

So far, only Discovery and Endeavour have been officially retired. Space shuttles Challenger and Columbia were destroyed in accidents in 1986 and 2003 respectively.

Quick Facts
  • Atlantis has orbited Earth 4,848 times.
  • It has travelled 202,673,974 kilometres.
  • The shuttle has spent just over 305 days in space.
  • Atlantis has carried 195 crew members to space on 32 missions, including two Canadians, Chris Hadfield in 1995 and Steve MacLean in 2006.


What will happen to the shuttle after it has been decommissioned?

NASA plans to put Atlantis on display at a yet-to-be-constructed facility at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is expected to open in 2013.

The $100-million US building will showcase Atlantis suspended in the air in orbit position, with a massive digital projection of Earth that will rotate by the shuttle.