For the crew of STS-132, it was anticipated that theirs would likely be the final flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis. By the spring of 2010, almost a quarter-century had passed since the vehicle’s maiden voyage—Mission 51J in October 1985—and STS-132 represented her 32nd flight into orbit. Commander Ken Ham, Pilot Tony Antonelli, and Mission Specialists Garrett Reisman, Mike Good, Steve Bowen, and British-born Piers Sellers were tasked with installing a Russian component onto the International Space Station (ISS) and executing a trio of complex spacewalks. Although NASA had provisional plans for STS-135 as the “final” flight of Atlantis, the mission initially carried the Launch on Need (LON) classification of “STS-335” and would not become “real” until January 2011, a mere six months before it actually flew. As NASA celebrates the 30th anniversary, this week, of Atlantis’ maiden voyage, a significant indicator of the vehicle’s immense contribution to U.S. spaceflight history emerges from pre-flight comments made by the STS-132 crew, who wryly dubbed themselves “The First-Last Crew of Atlantis.”
“First thing that comes to mind is that I’m not worthy,” Tony Antonelli remarked in a NASA interview, shortly before launch. “Everybody that puts together our mission put together a lot of those and it just makes the team that much bigger, because there were folks that worked on Atlantis throughout her flying career that aren’t currently working on the mission. It just makes the big team that much larger when you start including all those folks.” Mike Good added that the STS-132 crew patch was specifically designed by the six astronauts in partial reflection of the “sunset” of Atlantis’ career. There were other plans, too. “We were looking at making a T-shirt actually for Atlantis … kind of like a rock concert T-shirt, where on the back it lists all the tour the band made, all the stops, all the cities, but instead we put all of its missions,” remembered Garrett Reisman. “And when we were making that T-shirt, it was just kind of overwhelming to look at what this vehicle had done. It’s delivered some really important payloads to orbit.”
Certainly, in Reisman’s words, Atlantis served as “a key heavylifter” and had “done a lot of the hard work in the construction of the space station.” Indeed, she hauled more components of the orbital outpost’s backbone-like Integrated Truss Structure (ITS) than any of her sister shuttles. Between April 2002, when the STS-110 astronauts delivered the 27,000-pound (12,250-kg) S-0 central truss segment and mounted it atop the U.S. Destiny laboratory, and June 2007, when her STS-117 crew installed the 35,680-pound (16,180-kg) S-3 & S-4 solar arrays, batteries, and radiators onto the extreme starboard side of the ITS, she delivered six of the 11 major components of the space station’s truss. All told, Atlantis’ ITS work alone ferried a phenomenal 127,545 pounds (57,853 kg)—or almost 64 tons—of hardware into orbit. Alongside this effort, she also carried the U.S. Destiny and European Columbus laboratories, as well as the Quest airlock, aloft. It can hardly be understated that a substantial portion of the ISS is where it is because of Atlantis.
Yet these accolades leave unsaid her previous career as a laboratory, satellite-lifter, and the most frequent U.S. visitor to Russia’s Mir space station, to which she traveled on seven occasions between June 1995 and October 1997, becoming the first piloted U.S. vehicle to physically dock with another inhabited object in space since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). During the earlier stages of her 33-mission career, as noted in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, she also delivered the first national astronauts of Mexico, Switzerland, and Italy into orbit, flew more dedicated Department of Defense missions—five—than any of her sisters, and was the first shuttle to launch a spacecraft to another planet. Additionally, in May 2009, she supported the final servicing visit to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
At the time of her fabrication, decades earlier, it was expected that Atlantis, as the fourth member of NASA’s shuttle fleet, had an ambitious career ahead of her, but it could hardly have been imagined how many twists and turns and forks in the road she would encounter and survive by the time of her final mission in July 2011 and subsequent retirement to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC). On 5 February 1979, NASA signed a $1.9 billion contract with Rockwell International Corp. Space Systems Group of Downey, Calif., to build Orbiter Vehicles (OV)-103 and 104, upgrade Structural Test Article (STA)-99 into Challenger, and heavily modify the first space-capable shuttle, Columbia. Just a week earlier, on 29 January 1979, OV-103 had officially been named “Discovery” and OV-104 had received the callsign “Atlantis,” both in honor of historic sea vessels used in world exploration endeavors.
The spacefaring Atlantis drew its name from a two-masted, steel-hulled ketch, the research vessel RV Atlantis, which was operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) from 1930 through 1966. During her time at sea, the 142-foot-long (43-meter) Atlantis became the first vessel ever built specifically for interdisciplinary research in marine biology, geology, and physical oceanography. Throughout the 1930s, her summer cruises saw her exploring newly discovered canyons, collecting mud cores for bacteriological analysis, taking current measurements at anchor stations, dragging for Gulf of Maine shrimp, collecting plankton, and making hydrographic observations and acquiring water samples as she crossed the Gulf Stream. Meanwhile, her winter cruises took her to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Over the years, Atlantis’ scientists and crews secured a number of important discoveries, not least of which was the identification of the first abyssal plain—the 350,000-square-mile (900,000-square-kilometer) “Sohm Abyssal Plain,” located south of Newfoundland—in 1947. Nicknamed the “A-boat,” the 920,000-pound (417,000-kg) Atlantis made 299 cruises and covered in excess of 700,000 miles (1.1 million km) during her 36 years of WHOI service. She was sold to Argentina in 1966, heavily refurbished, renamed El Austral and subsequently employed as a research vessel in the Argentine Naval Prefecture as the Dr. Bernardo A. Houssay. Having sailed more than 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km) to date, she is the oldest-serving oceanographic research vessel in the world today.
With Columbia and Challenger having being constructed above their weight targets, wrote Dennis Jenkins in Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System, there was an increasing realization during the administration of President Jimmy Carter that additional orbiters would be needed to carry larger reconnaissance satellites for the Department of Defense. “While the third operational orbiter (Discovery) would be able to do so easily,” wrote Jenkins, “if it was lost in an accident, national security would be severely impacted.” As a result, then-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown “recommended the procurement of a fourth orbiter—using NASA funds—to ensure national security considerations were met.” This line of argument, added Jenkins, weighed heavily on President Carter and was eventually approved.
In the aftermath of the Rockwell contract award, the construction of the spacegoing Atlantis got underway in earnest. By March 1980, engineers started the fabrication of her crew compartment and over the next few years the vehicle grew: the construction of her aft fuselage began in November 1981, her delta-shaped wings arrived from their contractor Grumman of Bethpage, N.Y., in June 1983 and had reached structural completion by April 1984. Rollout of the glistening black-and-white orbiter from Rockwell’s Palmdale plant took place on 6 March 1985 and was followed on 3 April by an overland transfer to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for mating to the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). After a cross-continental journey, she alighted on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on 13 April, with a projected launch of her maiden voyage—Mission 51J—scheduled for no sooner than 26 September.
All told, Atlantis required less than half as many man-hours (about 49.5 percent) to assemble, compared to her sisters, which Jenkins noted was primarily attributable to her greater use of quilted Flexible Insulation Blankets (FIB), which demanded less manpower to install than Low-Temperature Reusable Surface Insulation (LRSI) tiles. In fact, the construction of Endeavour, which followed Atlantis, actually required more man-hours, because Rockwell’s orbiter production line had effectively been shut down two years before this final vehicle was ordered. Moreover, at 151,315 pounds (68,635 kg) at the time of her rollout, Atlantis was the lightest member of the shuttle fleet, even pipping her younger sister, Endeavour, by a mere 3 pounds (1.4 kg).
As she settled into her new home in Florida, Atlantis was initially shuffled between Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) Bays 1 and 2, as well as High Bay 2 of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), for storage and pre-flight preparations. At length, she was rolled over to High Bay 3 of the VAB on 12 August 1985 and subsequently transported, atop Mobile Launch Platform (MLP)-2, to Pad 39A on the 30th. As described in a recent AmericaSpace article, she underwent a standard 20-second Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) of her three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) on 12 September, which cleared a major milestone ahead of her first voyage into space.
By 3 October, as the final hours ticked away before her maiden launch, Atlantis could already look ahead to an ambitious first year of operational service. Her initial flight, Mission 51J, would deliver a pair of classified Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS)-III payloads, atop a single Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster, whilst her second orbital foray—Mission 61B—would follow in November 1985, creating a 50-day empirical landing-to-launch record for a single orbiter which would never again be surpassed in the shuttle program’s 30-year history. In tomorrow’s article, AmericaSpace will focus upon Atlantis’ early career, including her missions on opposite sides of the Challenger accident and other adventures which might have taken place.
The third part of this five-part article will appear tomorrow.