CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- This week's launch of space shuttle Atlantis came about almost as an afterthought.
If weather permits, Atlantis will roar aloft at 11:26 a.m. Friday -- culminating the 30-year run of what aerospace experts call the most amazing space vehicle ever built, and paying homage to the 14 astronauts who died aboard Challenger and Columbia and the 355 others who returned safely during 134 previous missions.
It might not happen on schedule. NASA officials said Wednesday that an incoming tropical wave offers a 70 percent chance that the launch will be scrubbed. If so, they'll try again Saturday or Sunday morning.
And whenever it flies, Atlantis' final mission hardly compares in complexity or significance to its previous flights that launched satellites and space probes; carried astronauts and components to the International Space Station; and ventured more than 400miles above Earth to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Its four-member crew is the smallest since the earliest shuttles in 1982: commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
Instead, it's perhaps fitting -- given that the shuttle was initially intended to be a "space truck" -- that Atlantis will haul one last pod of equipment and supplies, air and water to the space station. And the prosaic nature of its mission isn't likely to dim the enthusiasm of the million people expected to gather along the Space Coast to watch.
"It's a history-making event," said Roger Launius, a space-collection curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
"It's like the Battle of New Orleans," offered American University public-policy professor Howard McCurdy, referring to the well-chronicled defeat of the British that had no actual effect on the War of 1812 -- which had already been decided by treaty. "It's the last fight of the war."
The next-to-last shuttle launch -- Endeavour in May -- also was an add-on to the shuttle schedule, which was supposed to end in 2010. But it was a mission in search of a flight: The long-delayed Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a $2billion physics experiment, needed a ride to the International Space Station.
Atlantis' trip came about more as a flight in search of a mission.
Originally, its last assignment was to be an only-if-necessary flight as a rescue shuttle. The orbiter, rockets, fuel tank and crew were to be ready in case of an emergency while Endeavour was in space.
Then NASA officials began pushing for one last mission -- among other reasons, to prolong the jobs of several thousand shuttle workers -- and began searching for money and a purpose.
When NASA budget crunchers found the money, Atlantis was slipped into the schedule last winter, almost without announcements.
Even the astronauts were surprised.
"Before you knew it, the stage was set," recalled Ferguson, a 49-year-old retired Navy captain making his third shuttle flight, during an appearance at Kennedy Space Center in late May. "You could see how the momentum built. But there was never that 'Hallelujah! OK, I think we're finally going to fly this' (moment) until the reality kind of set in, about two or three months ago.
"It was 'OK, I think we are going to fly, because I'm reading about it in the newspaper,"' he said.
Atlantis will deliver the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, an Italian-built cargo carrier that has been to the station three times. This time, Raffaello and its 8,200 pounds of supplies will be left there and permanently attached.
"This is a very special mission for us," said Joe Delai, Atlantis' payload manager. "One of the primary objectives of this mission is to resupply ISS for one year. And we're going to perform that."
Atlantis also will be delivering the "Robotic Refueling Mission" device, a washing-machine-sized unit designed to let astronauts on the space station test tools and techniques that might one day lead to robotic refueling of and recharging of satellites.
John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the mission is necessary to stock the station so that it can remain in operation until 2020 or beyond.
"Since we're making the station the centerpiece for human spaceflight for the next decade, this mission is very important," Logsdon said. "Not jazzy, but extremely important."
Ferguson, Magnus and Walheim all have flown on Atlantis before, and are part of the orbiter's long, distinguished history.
Atlantis was NASA's fourth shuttle, after Columbia, Challenger and Discovery, and was delivered in 1985. Its maiden flight launched Oct.3, 1985.
During 32 missions, its astronauts have sent space probes to Venus and Mars and helped fix the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1995, it carried the 100th American astronaut into space and was the first shuttle to dock with the Russian Mir space station. In the past decade, it has delivered several large pieces of the space station, including the Destiny Laboratory in 2001.
But Launius, of the Smithsonian, noted that the most memorable shuttle missions aren't remembered for their practical objectives.
Besides the first launch of Columbia in 1981, he ticked off the two tragic missions, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003; the return-to-flight trips of Discovery in 1988 and 2005; and the Discovery flight that carried America's first orbital astronaut, John Glenn, back to space in 1998, 36 years after his Mercury flight.
This flight, he said, bookends Columbia's launch in 1981.
"It's extremely important," Launius said, "because it's the last one."
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