Shuttle Atlantis Reaches Launch Pad for March Space Shot

WASHINGTON -- With a slow and determined pace,NASA's shuttle Atlantisrolled out to its Floridalaunch site Thursday, where the spacecraft is slated to rocket towards the International SpaceStation (ISS) in one month's time.

Atlantisreached Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:09 p.m. EST (2009 GMT) after a six-hour trip from NASA's cavernous 52-story VehicleAssembly Building (VAB) via the agency's massive crawler carrier[image].

"This is asignificant milestone and it brings us one step, or I should probably say roll,closer to the launch of Atlantis," Cathy Koerner, NASA's lead flight director forthe shuttle's STS-117mission. "We are very excited and looking forward to continuing assembly ofthe InternationalSpace Station."

Commandedby veteranspaceflyer Rick Sturckow, Atlantis' STS-117 crew [image]is slated to launch towards the ISS at 6:43 a.m. EDT (1043 GMT) on March 15, kickingoff a series of five NASA shuttle missions to continue space station assemblyover the next 12 months.

Theastronauts plan to deliver two starboard ISS truss segments, a pair of new solararrays and help retract an older solar wing on the mast-likePort 6 truss -- a counterpart to one foldedaway in a December shuttle flight -- during three spacewalks planned for their11-daymission [image].

"I'mnervous about retracting solar arrays," Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS programmanager, said of the upcoming mission. "I think that will be probably one of thosethings we will spend probably a little more time on than we think we willtoday."

Theupcoming shuttle flight could run two days longer than planned and include a fourthspacewalk to handle any unexpected glitches in either the Port 6 solar wingretraction or the Starboard 3/Starboard 4 (S3/S4) truss [image]delivery or deployment, Suffredini said.

Atlantis'STS-117 mission will mark NASA's third flight dedicated solely to ISSconstruction since the 2003Columbia accident. It is the first of 13 planned orbiter missions, withthree extras possible to haul spare parts and cargo, to complete ISS assemblyby 2010, when NASA plans to retire its shuttle fleet to make way for the OrionCrew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares rockets.

ISS: MuchAssembly Required

JoiningSturckow on the STS-117 mission are Atlantis shuttle pilot LeeArchambault and mission specialists JamesReilly, StevenSwanson, PatrickForrester and DannyOlivas. Their spaceflight will help prime the ISS for to support newmodules and internationallaboratories slated for launch later this year.

"We have atremendous amount of work that we're going to be doing for the InternationalSpace Station program," NASA shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said duringThursday's mission briefings, who called NASA's next year of orbiter missions "extremelyambitious."

In additionto delivering the new S3/S4 solar arrays, NASA shuttles are due to ferry a newstarboard spacer section of the station's main truss, the Node2 hub for future modules, and the European Space Agency's Columbuslaboratory later this fall to be followed by the first part of JapanAerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo laboratory.

In betweenthose shuttle flights -- which are currently targeted to launch June 28(STS-118), Aug. 26 (STS-120),sometime this fall (STS-122 with Columbus) and Dec. 8 (STS-123 with the firstKibo segment) -- some four unmanned Russian cargo ships, the first automatedEuropean resupply vehicle and two Soyuz spacecraft with new ISS crews willvisit the orbital laboratory, station managers said.

"We'vespent many, many years preparing for this and training for this," Suffredinisaid. "The partner elements are ready to go fly."

But Halestressed that the planned launch schedule will always be susceptible to delays,especially those due to safety. Case in point: Atlantis' rollout to Launch Pad39A today was delayedone day from a planned Feb. 14 departure so engineers could remove a faultysolid rocket booster pressure sensor that shorted out, Hale said.

"If we don'tlaunch on the 15th, if we launch on the 16th, on the 18thor on the 20th then so be it," Hale said. "We don't want to letschedule drive us to do something dumb."

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.