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Observations

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NASA gears up shuttle Atlantis for its last scheduled trip to space

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Space shuttle Atlantis final launchSpace shuttle Atlantis stands at the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, nearly ready to begin its 32nd journey into space. That trip, slated to begin May 14, will also be Atlantis's final planned mission, as the shuttle program winds down with just two more launches, of sibling orbiters Discovery and Endeavour, booked for later this year. Weather and equipment permitting, Atlantis will lift off for the International Space Station at 2:20 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time.

The orbiter's mission is to deliver to the station a new, five-metric-ton Russian module that will attach to the outside of the station, primarily serving as a storehouse for cargo. The six-meter-long cylinder, known as Mini-Research Module-1 (MRM-1), will also provide an additional docking station for manned and unmanned Russian capsules. Atlantis is also carrying a cargo pallet loaded with a space-to-ground antenna, six massive batteries—together weighing a metric ton—and other spare parts for the station. MRM-1 is packed with cargo as well, adding three metric tons to its launch weight.

The crew for the 12-day Atlantis mission, officially designated STS-132, comprises six NASA astronauts: commander Kenneth Ham, pilot Dominic Antonelli, and mission specialists Michael Good, Garrett Reisman, Piers Sellers and Stephen Bowen. The British-born Sellers will carry to orbit a memento representing a famous fellow Englishman—a piece of the apple tree that allegedly inspired Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation, a bit of lore backed up by the great physicist's memoirs.

Among the highlights from Atlantis's 25 years of service: deploying the Jupiter-bound Galileo spacecraft in 1989, docking seven times with the Russian Mir space station between 1995 and 1997, and flying to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 for the orbiting observatory's final scheduled tune-up.

The weather looks favorable for a Friday launch. On Thursday morning Weather.com was forecasting mostly sunny skies at Cape Canaveral, whereas the National Weather Service was predicting a sunny day with mild winds.

Photo of cargo pallet loaded with six rectangular batteries (middle) and MRM-1 (below) in shuttle payload bay: NASA/Cory Huston

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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