NASA: After 30 years and 115 million miles, space shuttle program nears the end

Space shuttle <i>Atlantis</i> launches Friday to carry Russian-build module, spare antenna to space station

Nearly 30 years and 115 million miles after NASA launched its first space shuttle , the agency is preparing for the launch of Atlantis -- the final mission for the trusty spacecraft.

Atlantis , which took off on its first mission in 1985, is scheduled to liftoff on its farewell 12-day assignment with a six-person crew at 2:20 p.m. EDT Friday. The craft will carry spare parts and equipment to the International Space Station.

NASA has scheduled two more shuttle mission with other craft before the program ends. The final NASA shuttle flight is now scheduled for November.

"Every single flight is important," said Mike Curie, a NASA spokesman. "There is hardware that needs to be taken up to the space station to ensure that it can operate as long as we need it to. The shuttle is uniquely capable of carrying up massive objects to the space station. There is no other spacecraft that can carry objects of the weight and size of the objects."

The final Atlantis mission, its 32nd, will ferry ferry an 11,000-pound Russian-built mini research module to the station along with new batteries for the facility's solar array and a spare communications antenna among other items.

The research module, according to Curie, is nearly 20 feet long and 8 feet wide. It will be attached to the space station to be used for storage and as extra work space.

Attaching the new module and the spare communications antenna will be the top priority of the six astronauts during three planned spacewalks.

Curie said the robotic arm onboard the Atlantis , as well as another at the space station, will be used during this mission.

"Every spacewalk is difficult and somewhat risky because you're going out into the vacuum of space," said Curie. "The change out of the batteries is a lengthy procedure. Each one is large -- the size of a refrigerator."

This will be time that shuttle astronauts will use a new seven-window cupola that was installed at the station in February. The cupola will provide the crew with a stellar view as well as serve as a central command post for the station's robotics work.

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