REUTERS - The space shuttle Atlantis and six veteran astronauts blasted off on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center to deliver a Russian module and spare parts to the International Space Station.
The launch was the last for Atlantis, and the third-to-last for the shuttle program. NASA is retiring the shuttles, which began flying in 1981, due to cost and safety issues. Sister ships Discovery and Endeavour are scheduled for their final flights later this year.
Atlantis launched from its seaside pad at 2:20 p.m. EDT (1820 GMT), riding atop a flame-tipped column of smoke as it soared over the Atlantic Ocean, headed toward an orbital rendezvous with the space station 220 miles (354 km) above Earth. Docking is scheduled for Sunday.
The shuttle carries a small laboratory and docking compartment that will be attached to the Russian side of the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations nearing completion after more than a decade of construction.
The Mini Research Module, nicknamed “Rassvet”—Russian for dawn—shares Atlantis’ payload bay with a cargo carrier loaded with batteries, a spare communications antenna and an attachment for the station’s Canadian-built robotic crane.
NASA intends to stock the station with as many spare parts as possible before turning over cargo resupply to smaller and less capable ships run by Russia, Europe and Japan.