WASHINGTON ? NASA hailed the flawless liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis Monday, a space shot that marked the agency?s fifth shuttle launch of the year ? a flight rate not seen since 2002, before the tragic Columbia accident.
"This is a tremendous time in spaceflight," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for Space Operations. "This last year we've had a very successful year."
Atlantis blasted off at 2:28 p.m. EST (1928 GMT) from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., carrying six astronauts and a slew of large spare supplies to the International Space Station.
"The hardware was good to us; Atlantis is a good machine," launch director Mike Leinbach said after the liftoff. Leinbach credited the dedicated crew who worked on the reusable vehicle to turn it around quickly after its May trip to the Hubble Space Telescope.
"It's just the love of the people doing the work," he said. "We could not do all this work if we didn?t enjoy it."
Since 2005, when NASA resumed shuttle missions following the loss of Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew in 2003, the agency has steadily increased its flight rate while taking care not to shirk safety concerns.
In 2005, NASA launched one shuttle mission. Last year, the agency launched four flights. The record for most shuttle flights in a single year is nine, a benchmark NASA hit in 1985 before instituting new shuttle safety inspection and repair methods.
The breakneck pace comes right as NASA is preparing to wind down its shuttle program, with the three-orbiter fleet due to be retired in about a year. NASA plans to replace the shuttle fleet with new spacecraft and rockets by no earlier than 2015, though that plan is under review by the White House.
Atlantis' STS-129 mission currently underway comes on the heels of the first test launch of one of those new rockets, the Ares I, which lifted off on a suborbital flight last month.
The STS-129 flight is Atlantis? second-to-last scheduled voyage. It is NASA?s 129th shuttle flight since the fleet debuted in 1981.
"It's starting to hit home, I have to admit to you," Leinbach said of the impending end of the shuttle era. After this flight, there are only five more shuttle missions planned. What comes next for NASA is currently under review by the Obama administration.
Atlantis' trip helps pave the way for the retirement of the space shuttles by supplying the space station with two large carriers filled with spares to have on hand if something breaks. Only shuttles have the cargo-carrying capacity to ferry such huge supplies to space. The only other current spacecraft serving the space station is the Russian Soyuz, which has much less room for cargo.
"There's no way with any other vehicle you could pack these two carriers in a single mission," Gersteinmaier said.
Atlantis' STS-129 mission is the 31st launch of Atlantis and the 31st shuttle visit to the International Space Station.
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SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Atlantis' STS-129 mission to the International Space Station with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in Washington, D.C. and Managing Editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.