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Atlantis (Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV‑104) is a Space Shuttle orbiter vehicle belonging to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the spaceflight and space exploration agency of the United States.[2] Constructed by the Rockwell International company in Southern California and delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in Eastern Florida in April 1985, Atlantis is the fourth operational and the second-to-last Space Shuttle built.[3][4] Its maiden flight was STS-51-J from 3 to 7 October 1985.

Atlantis embarked on its 33rd and final mission, also the final mission of a space shuttle, STS-135, on 8 July 2011. STS-134 by Endeavour was expected to be the final flight before STS-135 was authorized in October 2010. STS-135 took advantage of the processing for the STS-335 Launch On Need mission that would have been necessary if STS-134's crew became stranded in orbit.[5] Atlantis landed for the final time at the Kennedy Space Center on 21 July 2011.

By the end of its final mission, Atlantis had orbited the Earth a total of 4,848 times, traveling nearly 126,000,000 mi (203,000,000 km) or more than 525 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

Atlantis is named after RV Atlantis, a two-masted sailing ship that operated as the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from 1930 to 1966.[6]

Construction milestones


  • Weight (with three shuttle main engines): 151,315 pounds (69 t)
  • Length: 122.17 feet (37.2 m)
  • Height: 56.58 feet (17.2 m)
  • Wingspan: 78.06 feet (23.7 m)
  • Atlantis was completed in about half the time it took to build Space Shuttle Columbia.[8]
  • When it rolled out of the Palmdale assembly plant, weighing 151,315 lb (68,635 kg), Atlantis was nearly 3.5 short tons (3.2 t) lighter than Columbia. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 20,685 pounds (9,383 kg) less than the Space Shuttle Endeavour (with the three RS-25s).

Notable missions

Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off on its maiden voyage on 3 October 1985, on mission STS-51-J, the second dedicated Department of Defense flight.[9] It flew one other mission, STS-61-B, the second night launch in the shuttle program, before the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster temporarily grounded the Shuttle fleet in 1986. Among the five Space Shuttles flown into space, Atlantis conducted a subsequent mission in the shortest time after the previous mission (turnaround time) when it launched in November 1985 on STS-61-B, only 50 days after its previous mission, STS-51-J in October 1985. Atlantis was then used for ten flights between 1988 and 1992. Two of these, both flown in 1989, deployed the planetary probes Magellan to Venus (on STS-30) and Galileo to Jupiter (on STS-34). With STS-30 Atlantis became the first Space Shuttle to launch an interplanetary probe.[10]

During NASA's 27th Shuttle Launch of STS-27 during an operation to release the payload, which was eventually determined to be a Lacrosse Surveillance satellite, Atlantis lost part of its protective heat shield during lift off, which substantially damaged the underside of her right wing, damaging over 700 tiles, which caused the melting of aluminum plating during her reentry. Before return to Earth, the Commander Robert L. Gibson thought to himself "We are going to die." due to the extensive damage to her wing. Due to the secretive nature of the Atlantis's payload, the crew was forced to use a more secure encrypted transmission, which had more than likely been received at a low quality. NASA engineers thought the damage was just light and shadows, and as a result the crew was infuriated. During reentry, Guy Garder the pilot for the mission, returned the Shuttle safely. Upon inspection the Shuttle's bottom right wing was seen to be severely damaged in critical areas.[12] Ultimately, the same fate would eventually be the result that destroyed the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, due to tile failures, which resulted in the Columbia being ripped apart on reentry.[13] Had Atlantis been destroyed during her mission in 1988, more than likely the second destruction of an Orbiter would have set NASA back at least two years, forced a redesign of the fuel tanks foam coverings and the fragile heat shield plating, or it would have forced NASA to close down the Shuttle Program 30 years before it actually ended.

During another mission, STS-37 flown in 1991, Atlantis deployed the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Beginning in 1995 with STS-71, Atlantis made seven straight flights to the former Russian space station Mir as part of the Shuttle-Mir Program. STS-71 marked a number of firsts in human spaceflight: 100th U.S. manned space flight; first U.S. Shuttle-Russian Space Station Mir docking and joint on-orbit operations; and first on-orbit change-out of shuttle crew.[14] When linked, Atlantis and Mir together formed the largest spacecraft in orbit at the time.

Shuttle Atlantis also delivered several vital components for the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). During the February 2001 mission STS-98 to the ISS, Atlantis delivered the Destiny Module, the primary operating facility for U.S. research payloads aboard the ISS.[15] The five hour 25 minute third spacewalk performed by astronauts Robert Curbeam and Thomas Jones during STS-98 marked NASA's 100th extra vehicular activity in space.[16] The Quest Joint Airlock, was flown and installed to the ISS by Atlantis during the mission STS-104 in July 2001.[17] The successful installation of the airlock gave on-board space station crews the ability to stage repair and maintenance spacewalks outside the ISS using U.S. EMU or Russian Orlan space suits. The first mission flown by Atlantis after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster was STS-115, conducted during September 2006.[18] The mission carried the P3/P4 truss segments and solar arrays to the ISS. On ISS assembly flight STS-122 in February 2008, Atlantis delivered the Columbus laboratory to the ISS.[19] Columbus laboratory is the largest single contribution to the ISS made by the European Space Agency (ESA).[20]

In May 2009 Atlantis flew a seven-member crew to the Hubble Space Telescope for its Servicing Mission 4, STS-125.[21] The mission was a success, with the crew completing five spacewalks totalling 37 hours to install new cameras, batteries, a gyroscope and other components to the telescope. This was the final mission not to the ISS.

The longest mission flown using Atlantis was STS-117 which lasted almost 14 days in June 2007.[22] During STS-117, Atlantis' crew added a new starboard truss segment and solar array pair (the S3/S4 truss), folded the P6 array in preparation for its relocation and performed four spacewalks. Atlantis was not equipped to take advantage of the Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer System so missions could not be extended by making use of power provided by ISS.[23]

During the STS-129 post-flight interview on 16 November 2009, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said that Atlantis officially beat Space Shuttle Discovery for the record low amount of Interim Problem Reports, with a total of just 54 listed since returning from STS-125. He continued to add "It is due to the team and the hardware processing. They just did a great job. The record will probably never be broken again in the history of the Space Shuttle Program, so congratulations to them".

During the STS-132 post-launch interview on 14 May 2010, Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said that Atlantis beat its own previous record low amount of Interim Problem Reports, with a total of 46 listed between STS-129 and STS-132.

Orbiter Maintenance Down Periods

Atlantis went through two overhauls of scheduled Orbiter Maintenance Down Periods (OMDPs) during its operational history.

Atlantis arrived at Palmdale, California in October 1992 for OMDP-1. During that visit 165 modifications were made over the next 20 months. These included the installation of a drag chute, new plumbing lines to configure the orbiter for extended duration, improved nose wheel steering, more than 800 new heat tiles and blankets and new insulation for main landing gear and structural modifications to the airframe.[24]

Atlantis after suffering severe damage to her right wing during take-off, was forced to undergo repair to her aluminum structure, and replacement to 700 of her tiles in 1988. The Shuttle was relaunched in 1989.[11]

On 5 November 1997, Atlantis again arrived at Palmdale for OMDP-2 which was completed on 24 September 1998. The 130 modifications carried out during OMDP-2 included glass cockpit displays, replacement of TACAN navigation with GPS and ISS airlock and docking installation. Several weight reduction modifications were also performed on the orbiter including replacement of Advanced Flexible Reusable Surface Insulation (AFRSI) insulation blankets[25] on upper surfaces with FRSI. Lightweight crew seats were installed and the Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) package installed on OMDP-1 was removed to lighten Atlantis to better serve its prime mission of servicing the ISS.

During the stand down period post Columbia accident, Atlantis went through over 75 modifications to the orbiter ranging from very minor bolt change-outs to window change-outs and different fluid systems.[26]

Atlantis was known among the Shuttle workforce as being more prone than the others in the fleet to problems that needed to be addressed while readying the vehicle for launch, leading to some nicknaming it "Britney".[27]


NASA initially planned to withdraw Atlantis from service in 2008, as the orbiter would have been due to undergo its third scheduled OMDP. However, because of the timescale of the final retirement of the shuttle fleet, this was deemed uneconomical. It was planned that Atlantis would be kept in near-flight condition to be used as a spares source for Discovery and Endeavour. However, with the significant planned flight schedule up to 2010, the decision was taken to extend the time between OMDPs, allowing Atlantis to be retained for operations. Atlantis was subsequently swapped for one flight of each Discovery and Endeavour in the flight manifest. Atlantis had completed what was meant to be its last flight, STS-132, prior to the end of the shuttle program,[28] but the extension of the Shuttle program into 2011 led to Atlantis being selected for STS-135, the final Space Shuttle mission in July 2011.

Atlantis is currently displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.[29] NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the decision at an employee event held on 12 April 2011 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle flight: "First, here at the Kennedy Space Center where every shuttle mission and so many other historic human space flights have originated, we'll showcase my old friend, Atlantis."[30][31]

The Visitor Complex displays Atlantis with payload bay doors opened mounted at an angle to give the appearance of being in orbit around the Earth. The 43.21 degree mount angle also pays tribute to the countdown that preceded every shuttle launch at KSC.[32] A multi-story digital projection of Earth rotates behind the orbiter in a 64,000-square-foot (5,900 m2) indoor facility.[33][34] Ground breaking of the facility occurred in 2012.[35] The exhibit opened on 29 June 2013.[36]


A total of 156 individuals flew with Space Shuttle Atlantis over the course of its 33 missions.[37] Because the shuttle sometimes flew crew members arriving and departing Mir and the ISS, not all of them launched and landed on Atlantis.

Astronaut Clayton Anderson, ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts and Russian cosmonauts Nikolai Budarin and Anatoly Solovyev only launched on Atlantis. Similarly, astronauts Daniel Tani and Sunita Williams, as well as cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov only landed with Atlantis. Only 146 men and women both launched and landed aboard Atlantis.[38]

Some of those people flew with Atlantis more than once. Taking them into account, 203 total seats were filled over Atlantis' 33 missions. Astronaut Jerry Ross holds the record for the most flights aboard Atlantis at five.[37]

Astronaut Rodolfo Neri Vela who flew aboard Atlantis on STS-61-B mission in 1985 became the first and so far only Mexican to have traveled to space. ESA astronaut Dirk Frimout who flew on STS-45 as a payload specialist was the first Belgian in space. STS-46 mission specialist Claude Nicollier was the first astronaut from Switzerland. On the same flight, astronaut Franco Malerba became the first citizen of Italy to travel to space.

Astronaut Michael Massimino who flew on STS-125 mission became the first person to use Twitter in space in May 2009.[8]

Having flown aboard Atlantis as part of the STS-132 crew in May 2010 and Discovery as part of the STS-133 crew in February/March 2011, Stephen Bowen became the first NASA astronaut to be launched on consecutive missions.[39]

Flights listing


NASA announced in 2007 that 24 helium and nitrogen gas tanks in Atlantis were older than their designed lifetime. These composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPV) were designed for a 10-year life and later cleared for an additional 10 years; they exceeded this life in 2005. NASA said it could not guarantee any longer that the vessels on Atlantis would not burst or explode under full pressure. Failure of these tanks could have damaged parts of the orbiter and even wound or kill ground personnel. An in-flight failure of a pressure vessel could have even resulted in the loss of the orbiter and its crew. NASA analyses originally assumed that the vessels would leak before they burst, but new tests showed that they could in fact burst before leaking.

Because the original vendor was no longer in business, and a new manufacturer could not be qualified before 2010, when the shuttles were scheduled to be retired, NASA decided to continue operations with the existing tanks. Therefore, to reduce the risk of failure and the cumulative effects of load, the vessels were maintained at 80 percent of the operating pressure as late in the launch countdown as possible, and the launch pad was cleared of all but essential personnel when pressure was increased to 100 percent. The new launch procedure was employed during some of the remaining launches of Atlantis,[51] but was resolved when the two COPVs deemed to have the highest risk of failure were replaced.[52]

After the STS-125 mission, a work light knob was discovered jammed in the space between one of Atlantis's front interior windows and the Orbiter dashboard structure. The knob was believed to have entered the space during flight, when the pressurized Orbiter was expanded to its maximum size. Then, once back on Earth, the Orbiter contracted, jamming the knob in place. Leaving "as-is" was considered unsafe for flight, and some options for removal (including window replacement) would have included a 6-month delay of Atlantis's next mission (planned to be STS-129). Had the removal of the knob been unsuccessful, the worst-case scenario was that Atlantis could have been retired from the fleet, leaving Discovery and Endeavour to complete the manifest alone. On 29 June 2009, Atlantis was pressurized to 17 psi (120 kPa) (3 psi above ambient), which forced the Orbiter to expand slightly. The knob was then frozen with dry ice, and successfully removed.[53] Small areas of damage to the window were discovered where the edges of the knob had been embedded into the pane.[54] Subsequent investigation of the window damage discovered a maximum defect depth of approximately 0.0003 in (7.6 μm), less than the reportable depth threshold of 0.0015 in (38 μm) and not serious enough to warrant the pane's replacement.[55]

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