Shuttle Atlantis to Fly Final Flight With Rocket Segment From Maiden Mission
A solid rocket booster segment that launched Atlantis' maiden mission, STS-51J (left) is set to fly on the orbiter's final flight, STS-132 (right).
Credit: NASA/collectSPACE.com

When space shuttle Atlantis lifts off later this week on what NASA has planned to be its final flight, helping to launch it will be a rocket booster segment that first flew 25 years ago on the orbiter's maiden mission.

The aft dome on the left solid rocket booster scheduled to loft Atlantis' STS-132 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) Friday first launched STS-51J, the orbiter's first flight to space, on Oct. 3, 1985.

The almost quarter-century reunion between Atlantis and its reusable solid rocket booster's casing is just one of the historical connections between the orbiter and its launch system. Including STS-132, 18 of Atlantis' 32 flights are represented by the boosters' segments, underscoring the legacy that NASA's fourth-to-fly orbiter will leave after it is retired.

Not that Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, NASA's contractor for the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, had history in mind when it selected components from its inventory to launch Atlantis on its final flight.

"It was a coincidence," wrote Harry Reed, ATK's program director for the reusable solid rocket motors (RSRM), in an e-mail to collectSPACE.com, referring to the first and last mission pairing. "The metal case segments are assigned based on hardware availability and fit considerations with mating segments."

Even knowing it was a coincidence, the presence of the earlier missions' hardware elicited further reflection on the shuttle's history by those who have and will fly aboard the orbiter to space.

"I'm glad that [the rocket boosters' history] was dug up," said STS-132's pilot Tony Antonelli. "I think there are still a lot of people who don't understand we reuse those solid rocket motors."

"It adds to the richness of the thoughts that I'll have when I watch Atlantis launch this time, to know that there's a lot more of my heritage there than I expected," said Jerry Ross, chief of NASA's Vehicle Integration Test Office and the astronaut who has flown the most on Atlantis. Out of his seven total flights, a record unto itself, Ross flew five times aboard Atlantis.

Case history

For Atlantis' final commander, the prior missions provide context for his and his five crewmates' STS-132 flight.

"I guess I would have to say it's relatively unremarkable," said Ken Ham, reflecting on Atlantis' final mission. "From looking at the list of all the incredible things that Atlantis has done, let alone the other shuttles, this is [just] another mission to space station."

"From a personal perspective, it's remarkable -- but when you look at [Atlantis' history], it is probably not. Carrying a Russian-built module is a first and that is interesting," he said, referring to STS-132's primary payload, the Russian Mini Research Module-1 (MRM-1) "Rassvet."

Space shuttle Atlantis' spaceflight career began on Oct. 3, 1985, with the launch of STS-51J, a classified mission dedicated to the Department of Defense. It was the fourth orbiter manufactured following Columbia, Challenger, and Discovery, and only Endeavour followed it.

Construction of Atlantis, referenced by NASA internally by its airframe number OV-104, began in March 1980 at the Palmdale, Calif., manufacturing plant. It arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Fla., in April 1985 ahead of its maiden mission.

Named after the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966, space shuttle Atlantis has carried on the spirit of the sailing vessel with voyages to the Russian station Mir and deployment of the Galileo probe to Jupiter in 1989 and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory in 1991.

Out of Atlantis' 31 missions to date, 17 are represented by its final set of solid rocket motor segments' earlier flights.

Continue reading at collectSPACE.com for the full history behind Atlantis' last set of solid rocket boosters and their coincidental conjunction with the orbiter's own rich spaceflight legacy.

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