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Atlantis heads for ISS with spare parts

Last shuttle blast of year

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The last shuttle leaving Earth this year has come and gone, with Atlantis and its crew of six astronauts blasting off from Kennedy Space Center at 2:28 pm EST (7:28 pm GMT) on Monday.

Loaded with spare parts and supplies, space shuttle Atlantis is expected to dock with the International Space Station this Wednesday, beginning an 11-day mission to stock the orbiting outpost and swap crew.

After today, only five shuttle launches remain before the planned September 2010 retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, ending three decades of activity. NASA is now focused on building up a reserve of spare parts to extend the lifetime of the ISS.

In a post-launch press conference, NASA officials called it a "picture-perfect" liftoff with no significant technical hitches and the morning's overcast weather in Florida clearing up in time for a good view of the shuttle's climb.

"Congratulations to the team. What a great way to start the mission," said Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

The STS-129 mission is the fifth and last shuttle launch of the year – the most NASA has launched in a single year since 2002. The shuttle is carrying some 27,000 pounds (12,300 kilos) of gyroscopes, ammonia tanks, two nitrogen tank assemblies, and other equipment on its journey and will feature three spacewalks.

Astronauts will be preparing the ISS both inside and out for the STS-130 mission, during which the final US space station module, Tranquility, will be delivered. Originally, Tranquility was to be installed on the Earth-facing port of the ISS's Harmony node, but it was later decided it would fit better on the port side of Harmony. The switch means significant changes and rewiring to prepare for the assembly for the ISS crew.

Today's STS-129 mission is commanded by Charles Hobaugh and piloted by Barry Wilmore. Mission specialists aboard Atlantis are Robert Satcher, Mike Foreman, Randy Bresnik, and Leland Melvin. It's the first trip to space for Wilmore, Satcher, and Bresnik.

The mission will also return station crew member Nicole Stott to Earth. It is slated to be the final space shuttle crew rotation flight before the fleet's retirement. From then, it will be up to Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.

To drum up public interest in space flight, NASA invited approximately 100 Twitter users for front-row seats of the Atlantis liftoff today. Gerstenmaier said he's already read some of the Tweets for the launch and calls the reaction "pretty amazing."

"They've captured the spirit and excitement we all feel — and managed to do it in very few characters," he said. ®

Story updated with post-launch press conference details.

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