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Feature Story

Assembling Atlantis

Editor's note: On July 8, 2011, at 11:29 a.m. ET, Space Shuttle Atlantis launched successfully from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., embarking on mission STS-135, the final mission of the shuttle program. To view photos of the launch, visit NASA's website.

Space Shuttle Atlantis is NASA's fourth space-rated space shuttle and will be the last to fly a mission as the Space Shuttle Program comes to a close. Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., on its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, carrying a Department of Defense payload. Over the last 26 years Atlantis has successfully completed 32 missions that included carrying four more DOD payloads on subsequent missions, deploying planetary probes and satellites, delivering parts for the International Space Station (ISS) and linking with Russian space station Mir.

Atlantis, named after a two-masted sailing ship that operated as an oceanic research vessel, has been blazing trails since its construction (shown in the photo gallery above). The orbiter was completed in half the time it took to build Space Shuttle Columbia -- mainly due to the use of large thermal protection blankets on the orbiter's upper body instead of individual tiles that take longer to install -- and weighed nearly 3.5 tons less, making the vehicle capable of completing missions that its heavier predecessors weren't as well-suited for.

Beginning in 1995 with STS-71, Atlantis made history by being the 100th U.S. human space launch conducted from KSC, and completed seven straight flights to the Russian space station Mir as part of the Shuttle-Mir Program. 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 ISS.

Atlantis was also chosen to fly critical missions to the ISS to deliver vital components for construction of the station, including the Destiny module, a primary operating facility for U.S. research payloads; the Quest Joint Airlock; the P3/P4 truss segments and solar arrays; and the Columbus Laboratory, the largest single contribution to construction of the ISS by the European Space Agency (ESA). In May 2009, Atlantis flew a seven-member crew to the Hubble Space Telescope for its Servicing Mission 4, STS-125. The mission was a success, with the crew completing five spacewalks to install new cameras, batteries, a gyroscope, and other components to the telescope.

When Atlantis landed after completing mission STS-132 -- its final scheduled mission -- it concluded a journey spanning three decades, 293 days in space, 4,648 orbits of Earth, and more than 120 million miles. During Atlantis's 32 missions, it deployed 14 satellites, docked with the Mir space station seven times, and docked with the International Space Station 11 times. The extension of the space shuttle program into 2011 led to one more flight for Atlantis -- STS-135 -- which is now intended as the final space shuttle mission.

After Atlantis has been finally decommissioned, it will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

As Space Shuttle Atlantis embarks on its final mission in the last days of the Space Shuttle Program, we honor the accomplishments of this orbiter and her crew, as well as all of the brave men and women who participated in each shuttle mission.