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Atlantis astronauts sailed past the midpoint of NASA’s STS-135 final shuttle program mission on July 14, steeped in a demanding cargo exchange with the International Space Station, but working well ahead of schedule.
The 13-day flight to the orbiting science laboratory is scheduled to conclude with a dawn landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on July 21. Touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility is scheduled for 5:58 a.m. EDT.
“We’ve had a wonderful mission so far,” Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson reported as the four-member shuttle crew prepared to take several hours off to share an “All American” meal of barbecue with their six U.S., Russian and Japanese space station hosts.
“We brought up about 10,000 pounds of food and supplies, and that will hopefully sustain the station for about a year to come,” Ferguson said. “We have a couple of more days docked, then it’s the long road back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.”
The transfers, overseen by Atlantis mission specialist Sandra Magnus, are intended to sustain six-person operations aboard the orbiting science laboratory through 2012, as NASA transitions to post-shuttle era commercial resupply services provided by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. The strategy, however, relies on regular launches of cargo-laden Russian Progress space freighters as well.
As they took their first break since the July 8 launch of Atlantis, the shuttle astronauts reported that 75% of the 9,400 lb. of food, spare parts and research equipment they delivered in the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module had been off-loaded. More than half of the 2,300 lb. of equipment from the shuttle’s mid-deck had made its way across the station threshold as well.
Over the remaining days of the flight, 5,600 lb. of trash and unneeded station gear will be stowed aboard Raffaello, which was temporarily transferred from the shuttle’s cargo bay to the station on July 11. Another 1,500 lb. of station discards will return to Earth in the mid-deck.
“There are bags and boxes everywhere, just like your house on moving day,” says Chris Edelen, NASA’s lead space station flight director. “But it’s a controlled chaos. The [Mission Control] team is working very closely with the crew. They have choreographed the movement of equipment in and out of the logistics module so there is a place for everything.”