Atlantis takes off on mission to supply space station
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The space shuttle Atlantis took off Monday from the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, on a mission to bring vital supplies and spare parts to the nearly-completed International Space Station before the US shuttles retire next year.
AFP - The shuttle Atlantis blasted off Monday carrying vital supplies and spare parts for the International Space Station to push its life past the 2010 retirement of the aging shuttle fleet.
Atlantis launched at 2:28 pm (1928 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center near Florida's Cape Canaveral carrying six astronauts and some 27,000 pounds (12,300 kilos) of gyroscopes, ammonia tanks and other equipment.
"A perfect launch, right on time," said a NASA spokesman after the shuttle reached orbit about eight minutes into its flight, hurtling at a speed of more than 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) per hour, NASA said.
Moment before the lift-off, launch director Mike Leinback wished the crew godspeed, declaring: "All the vehicle systems are outstanding today, the weather is near perfect for a good lif-toff today."
Space agency officials said the mission was crucial as just five more shuttle launches remain before the planned September 2010 retirement of the fleet and the spare parts will add years to the space station's life.
"You'll see this theme in some of the flights that are going to come after ours as well," said mission director Brian Smith. "This flight is all about spares, basically, we're getting them up there while we still can."
Atlantis reached its orbit in eight and one-half minutes 225 km (140 miles) above earth. It was due to dock with the ISS Wednesday at 1653 GMT.
Led by Marine Corps Colonel Charlie Hobaugh, the all-male crew arrived Thursday at Kennedy Space Center from Houston, Texas, where the astronauts are based.
The 11-day space outing,the fifth and final shuttle mission for 2009, is scheduled to include three space walks to store hardware on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS).
Atlantis will also bring back US astronaut Nicole Stott, who has served as flight engineer on the ISS since August.
The launch follows Friday's dramatic revelation that a "significant amount" of frozen water has been found on the moon, a discovery hailed by NASA as heralding a giant leap forward in space exploration.
Preliminary data, uncovered after NASA sent two spacecraft crashing into the lunar surface last month, indicated the discovery of some two-dozen gallons of water in a permanently shadowed lunar crater.
Scientists had previously theorized that, except for the possibility of ice at the bottom of craters, the moon was totally dry.
Only 12 men, all Americans, have ever walked on the moon, and the last to set foot there was in 1972, at the end of the Apollo missions.
NASA has ambitious plans to put US astronauts back on the moon by 2020 to establish manned lunar bases for further exploration to Mars under a project called Constellation.
But NASA's budget is currently too small to pay for Constellation's Orion capsule, a more advanced and spacious version of the Apollo lunar module, as well as the Ares I and Ares V launchers needed to put the craft in orbit.
A review panel appointed by President Barack Obama said existing budgets are not large enough to fund a return mission before 2020.
The White House could still decide to extend the shuttle program through 2011 to reduce American reliance on Russia's Soyuz craft for transporting astronauts to the ISS.
Ahead of the decision on the future of manned space flight, NASA is undertaking numerous efforts to broaden its public appeal, including hosting about 100 Twitter followers Monday at the Kennedy Space Center for a "tweet-up" -- the first ever at a shuttle launch.
Tweets from blast-off can be found at .nasatweetup.
Last month NASA successfully launched the prototype Ares I-X as part of its effort to build a new generation of space rocket to transport the Orion capsule in the post-shuttle era, but Orion will not be ready until at least 2015.
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