Atlantis Ascends

Space shuttle Atlantis, fresh out of its OPF is posed for pictures with members of the STS-135 crew and the many KSC employees. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla, — Over a two day period, space shuttle Atlantis was transferred from the Orbiter Processing Facility (in this case OPF-1) that it resides in – to be mated to the external tank and solid rocket boosters that will help propel it to orbit in July. 

The first part of this process, dubbed “rollover” and it is a chance for Kennedy Space Center employees, the media and other individuals with connections to the space shuttle program to see the orbiter emerge from her cocoon and be moved to the expansive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Along the way she is frequently stopped and members of her extended KSC family pose with pictures underneath the orbiter. 

For the last time ever, a space shuttle is moved from its OPF to the VAB in preparation for a mission. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

For this rollover the entire crew of STS-135, Commander Christopher Ferguson, Pilot Douglas Hurley and Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim were present. The crew took time to pose for pictures and to answer questions from the media. 

The shuttle stayed outside of the VAB for almost six hours. First motion began at 8:03 a.m. EDT, with Atlantis entering into the VAB at 1:52 p.m. EDT. From there, workers attached several brackets that allow a crane to hoist and maneuver Atlantis so that it can be mated with the External Tank (ET) and the twin solid rocket boosters (SRBs). 

Suspended in mid-air, Atlantis is moved into position to be attached to the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters that will power it to orbit this July. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Whenever an orbiter is lifted airborne it is given both weight and center-of-gravity (CG) measurements. For this final lift and mate Atlantis weighed in at 193,735 lbs. 

Lift operations began Wednesday at 10:26 a.m. EDT with mating operations concluding at 11:15 a.m. EDT. This means that the total operation to get Atlantis off the ground and attached to the ET and SRBs took over a day to complete. 

The process that takes the shuttle from ground level to affix to the ET and SRBs is a painstaking affair that takes place over the course of a day. With all the attention that is being paid to the final flight in the shuttle program the NASA Press Site had to break the members of the media into three groups with strict guidelines as to the length of time that they could stay at each site. 

The two ports where fuel is pumped into the orbiter from the ET can be clearly seen in this image. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

NASA tried to allow everyone possible with a chance to see the Lift & Mate process take place. Workers, some of whom were not afforded the opportunity to see Atlantis, or any other space shuttle, being mated to the hardware that will send it to orbit – were caught off guard when confronted with the sight. One young woman, who had just exited the elevators on the VAB’s fifth floor, stopped dead in her tracks, stared up at the spacecraft hanging from the crane and said simply, “Damn!” 

“Seeing Atlantis suspended in the air is breathtaking, no matter how many years you’ve worked here.  I was struck by how large Atlantis looks hanging free in the transfer aisle as compared to being in the OPF surrounded by structure that obscures the view of the orbiters,” said NASA’s Flow Director for Atlantis, Angie Brewer.  “It was an amazing and bittersweet sight.  There were many of us that were misty-eyed, even one of my “steely-eyed…no crying in shuttle processing” coworkers.” 

It took over 12 hours to move Atlantis from the floor of the VAB to being attached to the waiting ET and SRBs. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

STS-135 is currently the last flight of the space shuttle program and is being tentatively slated to take place in early July. It will be a re-supply flight to the International Space Station. Atlantis’ crew will only consist of four for a number of reasons. One, less weight means more supplies can be sent to the orbiting laboratory and, more importantly, in the advent of something going wrong, the crew can remain on the space station and return to Earth on Soyuz spacecraft.

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