Saturday, 9 July 2011


Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Centre on 8th July 2011. Despite light rain and cloudy skies, meteorological conditions were safe for a successful departure into orbit.

Atlantis – STS135 – First Mission STS-1: Astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen onboard Columbia on 12 April 1981. Last Mission STS-135: Mission specialist Rex Walheim, pilot Doug Hurley, commander Chris Ferguson and mission specialist Sandy Magnus onboard Atlantis 8 July 2011. NASA 2011.Space Shuttle Atlantis is the last orbital vehicle of a fleet of five spacecraft that form part of NASA’s 30-year Space Shuttle Programme. The other orbiters are: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Endeavour. The first two lost in fatal accidents that highlight the dangers that the programme has to face at every stage of its performance.

Mission 135 marks the end of one of the biggest accomplishments of humankind; the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), an artificial environment that supports human life outside Earth’s atmosphere.

The end of the building phase is the beginning of the productive period of the ISS, a space post dedicated entirely to scientific research. A multinational collaborative effort in space exploration fuelled by the recognition that the future of our species may potentially rely on finding habitable solutions outside our planet.

Since the 1980s there has been an explosion of technologies that used the services of the Space Shuttle Programme, from transporting provisions to the ISS to delivery and retrieval of equipment and satellites from orbital altitudes.

On this mission, Commander Chris Ferguson and Pilot Doug Hurley teamed-up with Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim in a 12-day excursion to the ISS. They will have the following objectives:

  • Atlantis – STS135 – Atlantis ready for launch and its reflexion after a light rain. NASA 2011.Transport of “Raffaello,” the multi-purpose logistics module (MPLM), filled with 9 tonnes of supplies, experiments and spare parts for the ISS. A combined effort of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ASI (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana). This unit acts as a “moving van” to ferry cargo back and forth to the station. The crew will bring back debris and material no longer required at the station.
  • Delivery of the Advanced Recycle Filter Tank Assembly (ARFTA), a titanium tank containing a bellows made of Hastelloy, the only materials known to withstand the corrosive effects of concentrated pre-treated urine/brine. Its function is to collect residue left over from extracting water from astronaut urine, a part of the station’s Water Recovery System (WRS), which produces purified potable water from crew urine.
  • Delivery of the Robotic Refuelling Mission (RRM), an experiment to evaluate procedures of robotically refuelling satellites in space, even those not designed to be serviced. This mission as developed between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). This will lay the foundation for future robotic servicing missions.
  • Transport of the Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier (LMC) that will be used to return a failed Ammonia Pump from the ISS
  • Carry the cryogenic transportation freezer GLACIER to carry experiment samples.
  • Transport many experiments including a materials experiment to be installed outside the station.

Atlantis – STS135 – Atlantis ready for launch the night before. The image shows a banner reading “Go Atlantis !”. NASA 2011.The crew of STS-135 will support a spacewalk carried out by members currently stationed at the ISS.

Flight Engineers Michael Fossum and Ron Garan will perform one spacewalk on the fifth day of the mission. On this occasion they will test a new procedure tried out by the previous mission in order to cut down the use of oxygen in preparation for the spacewalk. Instead of spending the night before the procedure in the low pressure capsule “Quest,” they will breathe pure oxygen for an hour while the pressure is lowered. Then they will put on their spacesuits and perform light exercise to increase their metabolic rate and purge nitrogen from their bloodstream.

Atlantis – STS135 – Atlantis engines at lift-off. NASA-TV 2011.During the 6.5 hour spacewalk the astronauts will retrieve the failed pump module, install the Robotic Refuelling Mission experiment and deploy materials for another experiment.

In addition to their activities, the mission is taking many experiments to the station and also bringing some back to Earth.

Update on the mission

The routine inspection of the heat shield using Canadarm2 on board the Shuttle revealed no visible damage to the tiles during launch. Similar results were found in the analysis of photos taken with the 3 ISS cameras (400, 800 and 1000mm lens cameras) during the Shuttle’s roll-over or “rendezvous pitch” manoeuvre.

Atlantis – STS135 – Spacewalk on day 5. Astronauts get together at ISS for a conference with the president of USA. NASA-TV 2011.After a flawless docking to the ISS, the 12th of Shuttle Atlantis, the crew of astronauts were welcomed by their colleagues at the station.

The team on the ground was watching a piece of debris travelling in an orbit close to that of the space station. They feared a “conjunction” or moment of maximum proximity to the station to happen on the day of the spacewalk. Interestingly, the docking of the Shuttle to the station resulted in a change in trajectory sufficient to avoid that of the approaching debris.

The spacewalk went well with almost all tasks completed successfully. Thanks to the live transmission, courtesy of NASA-TV, the world was able to witness the complexity and exhausting job that the astronauts have to do in those continuous 6.5hr in space. After almost 250 spacewalks in history, the delicate procedure now runs smoothly with minimal problems.

Atlantis – STS135 – Spacewalk on day 5. Astronauts secure the failed pump into Atlantis’ cargo bay. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Spacewalk on day 5. Astronaut Ron Garan (18) using a multipurpose tool to drive a screw and secure the pump in place. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Spacewalk on day 5. Astronaut Michael Fossum (20) holds a camera encased in thermal protection to take close up pictures of the materials experiment installed outside ISS. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Spacewalk on day 5. Astronaut Michael Fossum (20) inspects his gloves for damage before re-entry to the ISS after 6.5 hours of a successful spacewalk. NASA-TV 2011.

The morning after the spacewalk, the astronauts woke-up to the tune of the song “Rocket man” followed by a short message from its author Sir Elton John, who acknowledged the 3 decades of success of the Shuttle Space Programme. The crew also had the chance to show off their floating skills during interviews with the media, interested in the progress of the last mission of the programme.

Atlantis – STS135 – Wake-up call on day 6. Rocket Man, sung by Elton John, who briefly addressed the congratulating them for the 3 decades of success. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Commander Chris Ferguson doing a flip-back during an interview with the media, joined by Dr Sandy Magnus in the background. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Convoy recovering the Solid Fuel Rocket Boosters from the Atlantic ocean, Florida. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Solid Fuel Rocket Booster recovered arriving to harbour. NASA-TV 2011.

Meantime on Earth, in the Atlantic coast at Cape Canaveral in Florida; a convoy of vessels conducted the final recovery of Solid Fuel Rocket Boosters in the programme, the only re-usable parts besides the shuttle. The recovery convoy was led by a boat marking the occasion blowing its sirens and shooting water towards the sky as they travelled to port for the last time.

The last duties of Mission STS-135 revolved around transporting cargo to and from the station, ensuring that the ISS is sufficiently supplied for up to one year.

Atlantis – STS135 – Space Shuttle Programme Logo and an image of the Shuttle on its transporter. In the background, patches of the first Mission STS-1 and the last Mission STS-135 next to the American flag that was present in both, now secured on the entry hatch of the International Space Station. NASA-TV 2011.Seven days after docking to the space station the astronauts on board ISS got together for a farewell ceremony before preparation for undocking.

Commander Chris Ferguson presented the crew of Expedition-28 living at ISS a signed model of the Shuttle that will stay next to the entry hatch, as a monument to the accomplishments of the Space Shuttle Programme.

The crew also left an American Flag that flew on the first Space Shuttle Mission, STS-1, which will be placed on top of the hatch that leads to Atlantis. The flag will be returned to Earth by the next American astronaut launching on a new generation US vehicle, marking the continuation of space exploration beyond the age of the Space Shuttle Programme.

Atlantis – STS135 – Farewell ceremony with presentation of a model of the Shuttle signed by ground crew directors. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Farewell ceremony, Ron Garan fixes the flag on the hatch that leads to Atlantis. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Farewell ceremony, Final hug before the crew returns to Atlantis. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Farewell ceremony, re-entering Atlantis a day before undocking. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – The crew of Atlantis took an American flag to the ISS, which will be returning to its home at Miami Dade Police department. NASA-TV 2011.

The crew of Atlantis carried along their mission a symbolic national flag from the Miami Dade Police Department. It will be returned upon landing with the added value of having been to almost as far as humans can go.

On Tuesday 19th July, undocking proceeded without a hitch, followed by a flight around the station. This time the station rotated 90 degrees to allow viewing areas that are usually missed by this manoeuvre.

Atlantis – STS135 – Deployment of mini-satellite PICO shortly before re-entry. NASA-TV 2011.Two separation burns moved the Shuttle away from the ISS and closer to our planet. The crew then made another stop to inspect the heat shield for damage that might have occurred while docked to the station.

The next day, before preparations for re-entry burn, Atlantis made its 180th deployment: the mini-satellite PICO, its purpose is to take the last pictures of the Shuttle as it re-enters our atmosphere. This satellite weights 4kg and measures 12x12x20cm; it is covered with solar cells to test a new solar cell technology. During flight it was stored in a small canister inside the cargo bay, under Canadarm-1 and the KU-Band communications antenna (golden structure in the pictures), which helped downlink the excellent television images to the control room and NASA-TV.

On the same date, 20th July in 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Celebrating this occasion the astronauts had their last interview with the media and did a great job as ambassadors of the space programme. Their message was: “Take a look back at the landing of Atlantis and make a memory because you will never see the landing of a Space Shuttle again.”

Atlantis – STS135 – Image of PICO box in the cargo bay, located under Canadarm and the transmitting antenna. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Close up of the PICO box in the cargo bay and the insert shows the box opened after the release of the mini-satellite on Wednesday 20 july. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – The crew of Atlantis wave good-bye for the last time from the Space Shuttle at the end of an interview with the media. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 –PICO mini-satellite flies through the scene as it is released into orbit. The arrow points at the moving satellite. NASA-TV 2011.


Atlantis – STS135 –Trajectory of the first landing option was selected as the landing path for this mission with a touchdown calculated at 5:56am US Eastern Time. NASA-TV 2011.Early morning on Thursday, 21st July 2011, Atlantis proceeded with the final de-orbit burn to slow down the spacecraft, which is done with the spacecraft moving backwards. Then it turned around and lifted the nose to expose the thermal shield to the zone of most friction as it entered the atmosphere. At that point, the heat shield was put to test when temperatures around the Shuttle -reached 13,800 degrees Celsius (25000 F).

In its descent, the spacecraft slowed down from 24 to 14 times the speed of sound as it travelled across the Gulf of Mexico towards Cape Canaveral. It flew by over Naples, Florida at 6 times the speed of sound; 5 minutes later, Atlantis went sub-sonic and everyone around could hear the twin sonic booms.

Pilot Doug Hurley took over control of the aircraft until touch down, culminating the mission at the official elapsed time of 12 days 18 hours 28min and 14 seconds.

Atlantis – STS135 – The crew of Atlantis in an interview with the BBC before landing. BBC 2011. Atlantis – STS135 –Trajectory of approach over the Gulf of Mexico to Florida, USA; close up showing trajectory close to Kennedy Space Centre. NASA-TV 2011. Atlantis – STS135 – Cockpit view on approach: Horizon vie, top-left. First sight of the runway at top-right. Close to landing on the runway at the bottom. Infra-Red view of Atlantis with landing gear locked. NASA-TV & BBC 2011. Atlantis – STS135 –Night landing of Atlantis, just before touch down. BBC 2011.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Atlantis – STS135 – Graphical concept from the creation of Atlantis in 1985. At the bottom image of Atlantis in the mist. NASA-TV 2011.The Space Shuttle Atlantis was the fourth Orbiter Vehicle designed by the company Rockwell International in 1985. Since then it has served the programme in a large number of achievements and number first in the following:

  • First to deploy a probe to another planet (Magellan towards Venus, also Galileo to the outer planets including Jupiter)
  • First to dock to the space station Russian MIR
  • First shuttle with glass cockpit

Some of the highlight of its many years of service include:

  • 1985, 3 October: First flight carrying Mission STS-51j that deployed two DSCS-III (Defence Satellite Communications System) satellites into stationary orbit
  • 1985 second mission STS-61b: Deployed 3 communications satellites: MORELOS-B, AUSSAT-2 and SATCOM KU-2
  • 1986 Challenger accident: Grounds the Shuttle fleet
  • 1988, 2 December: Deployed the Lacrosse 1 satellite, for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • 1989, 2 missions: The first one to deploy the Magellan spacecraft to capture images of Venus; and Galileo released towards Jupiter
  • Atlantis – STS135 – Crew of Atlantis repairing Hubble Telescope in 2009. NASA-TV 2011.1990, 2 missions to deliver satellites for the Department of Defence: The Misty reconnaissance satellite and a secret Magnum ELINT (ELectronic INTtelligence) gathering satellite.
  • 1995, 29 June, the first Mission to dock on the Russian MIR, starting the cooperation of the two former enemy countries in the project SPACELAB/MIR
  • 2000 start of the ISS assembly missions with the first component, followed by missions dedicated to this purpose.
  • 2009, 11 May, Historic Hubble Space Telescope final Servicing Mission replacing and adjusting the optics to maximize its performance.

"Launching Our Dreams: A Shuttle Retrospective" and "STS-135 Mission Overview"

Atlantis Art

Atlantis – STS135 – Atlantis Art: “SharkAtlantis”. by ren@rt 2011.

Last chance to see Atlantis from your backyard !

NASA offers a service to help you track the progress of the ISS and other satellites in the night sky. All you need is a pair of binoculars and ideally somewhere solid to lean on. The service is “Sighting Opportunities” and can be found here.

Find your country and city using the Search field and a table will tell you when, and where to look for the spacecraft in the sky.


¤ ‘History of the Space Shuttle’ (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 08 July 2011).
¤ ‘Mission STS-135’ (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 08 July 2011).
¤ ‘NASA HD-TV’ (2011). NASA-TV. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 18 July 2011).
¤ ‘Sighting Opportunities’ (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 19 July 2011).
¤ ‘Space Shuttle Atlantis’ (2011). Wikipedia. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 18 July 2011).


¤ All images edited by ren@rt. Source: NASA.