If weather permits, history will be made this evening when Space Shuttle Atlantis ignites its engines and rises from the launch pad to begin the last flight of the programme. Twelve days later, the crew of four will steer the venerable space workhorse back to Earth and into retirement. Follow live via NASA
Across three decades, Space Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour have climbed towards space 134 times from the Florida coastline before this last mission, STS-135.
The era saw high-flying successes and a chain of firsts but it was marred by the two tragic losses that led NASA to decide in 2003 to retire the spaceplane after completing assembly of the International Space Station.
Mission STS-134 was planned to end the series, but STS-135 was added to deliver a variety of supplies and major spare parts to sustain Station operations. In comparison, the remaining unmanned ferries are unable to loft large items.
Atlantis stood by for a potential rescue mission during Discovery’s last mission, so NASA decided to fly it once more to the Station with a minimal crew of four.
If there are problems, they can use the Station as a safe haven until they can return to Earth aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
Launch on Friday
The 12-day STS-135 mission will be launched at 17:26 CEST (15:26 GMT), and on Sunday 10 July, Atlantis will dock with the Station, where currently the ISS Expedition 28 crew consisting of two American and one Japanese astronauts and 3 Russian cosmonauts permanently live and work in space.
The Italian-built Raffaello pressurized logistics module module will be berthed at the Node-2 port of the orbital outpost for the crew to unload its precious cargo and install various items for return.
Two ISS astronauts, Michael Fossum and Ron Garan will make a spacewalk on Tuesday 12 July to recover a Station ammonia pump that recently failed. It will be returned to Earth for engineers to probe the causes.
Raffaello will be returned to the Shuttle’s cargo bay on Sunday 17 July and Atlantis will leave the Station for the last time on Monday 18 July at 07:59 CEST (05:59 GMT).
The final Shuttle landing at the Kennedy Space Center is planned for Wednesday 20 July at 13:06 CEST (11:06 GMT).
During the mission, the Atlantis crew will also test tools and techniques for the robotic refuelling of satellites in space.