Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off Monday afternoon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, beginning an 11-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The orbiter's six-member crew will deliver some 13 metric tons of parts to the station as NASA wraps up its final scheduled shuttle launches and seeks to complete construction of the station. After Atlantis's mission, designated STS-129, only five planned shuttle launches remain. And today's launch marks the start of the last shuttle mission for 2009.

Amidst the shuttle's cargo is a refurbished antenna assembly for communication between the space station and NASA's Tracking Data and Relay Satellite system. But the bulk of the payload is a pair of unpressurized shelves to hold spare parts on the outside of the station. Those carriers will arrive at the ISS preloaded with hardware, including a high-pressure oxygen tank, a power converter that works in concert with the ISS batteries and solar arrays, and a pair of 275-kilogram electric gyroscopes that can be used to maintain the station's attitude without firing thrusters.

A flight plan compiled by Spaceflight Now shows that the Atlantis crew will spend Tuesday checking out the spacesuits that will be worn during the mission's three spacewalks as well as inspecting the shuttle's heat shield for potential damage sustained during launch. If all goes according to plan, the orbiter will dock to the space station just before noon Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday.

The STS-129 crew includes Leland Melvin, a former NFL draft pick turned astronaut. Melvin made his first shuttle flight on a construction mission to the ISS in 2008, an experience he discussed with Scientific American last September.

Photo: NASA