Shuttle Atlantis Prepares for One Last Send-Off

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>Today's launch of NASA's shuttle Atlantis is the third-to-last planned flight in the long and mythologized history of the U.S. space shuttle. First launched in 1981, the shuttle has since flown 132 missions. It has launched countless satellites, conducted important in-space research, and provided vital maintenance and supplies for space stations and their astronauts.

But in November, this history will come to an abrupt end. One of the more controversial budget cuts Obama has proposed is a significant scaling back of NASA's manned space flight program. The first to get the axe were the Constellation program, intended to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020, and the space shuttle program, which was up for extension. A flood of criticism (including angry comments from legendary astronauts Neil Armstrong and James Lovell) prompted Obama to reestablish human spaceflight goals: to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025 and orbit them around Mars by the 2030s. In the meantime, until commercial operators develop adequate orbital spacecraft, NASA will rely on Russian rockets to transport astronauts to and from the space station.

Today's 2:20 p.m. EDT launch is probably the last for the Atlantis shuttle in particular, though she's only a third of the way through her projected lifespan. Over the course of this 12-day mission, her crew of six astronauts will deliver fresh batteries and supplies to the International Space Station.

Observing the launch from Cape Canaveral is a horde of madly tweeting journalists and some lucky VIPs, including David Letterman. Current concerns revolve around the weather, which could ground the shuttle as little as 30 seconds before its scheduled launch.

atlantis astronauts inside.jpg

But for all the uproar when Obama announced his NASA budget just a few months ago, there's been little eruption pegged to today's launch -- only nostalgia. The shuttle crew played up our cultural fixation with astronauts by posing in smoking jackets and bow ties this morning and consuming extravagant breakfasts of medium-rare steaks and cheeseburgers.   

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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