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Space shuttle Atlantis blasts off

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June 9

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis blasted off on a construction mission to the International Space Station on Friday, ending a three-month grounding to repair the ship's hail-battered fuel tank.

The launch bolstered NASA's hopes of finishing work on the slightly more than half-built $100 billion orbital research outpost before the aging shuttles are retired in three years.

Atlantis and its seven-man crew lifted off at 7:38 p.m. EDT (2338 GMT) from a newly refurbished launch pad at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

The pad had not been used since the ill-fated Columbia launch 4-1/2 years ago.

Riding atop a pillar of smoke and flame, the shuttle soared through clear skies, arcing out over the Atlantic Ocean and heading for an initial perch 137 miles above the planet. Docking with the space station is planned for shortly after 3:30 p.m. EDT (1930 GMT) Sunday 220 miles above the southern Indian Ocean.

The shuttle is carrying the heaviest payload ever flown to the space station -- a 45-foot-(14-metre) long, 35,678-pound (16,183 kg) aluminum structure that will become part of the station's structural backbone.

It includes a pair of solar wings that will generate additional electricity needed as the station is expanded in the years ahead.


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June 10

Space shuttle Atlantis sped Sunday toward a rendezvous with the international space station - the first of 2007 - with a peeled-back corner of a thermal blanket being the biggest concern tracked by engineers on the ground.

Engineers weren't sure if stitching on the blanket came loose or if the blanket, covering a pod of engines near the shuttle's tail, was hit by debris during launch Friday evening at Kennedy Space Center. The peeling back of the blanket left a gap about 4 inches by 6 inches.

With the exception of that single thermal blanket, Atlantis looked to be in great shape after astronauts spent Saturday meticulously scanning its heat shield with a camera attached to the end of a robotic arm and boom to make sure there was no damage from launch like the kind that doomed Columbia in 2003.

NASA engineers want to study more photos of the torn blanket, particularly images that were taken by cameras attached to the solid rocket boosters that separated from Atlantis more than two minutes into flight and then dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. The boosters are recovered by ships after each launch, and mission managers could have the images by Monday.

Using the images, engineers can build models and perform aerodynamic and thermodynamic tests to determine whether the peeled-back blanket would pose problems during Atlantis' re-entry into Earth's atmosphere at the end of the mission.

The area does not get hotter than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit during the shuttle's return to Earth, compared with other parts of the vehicle where temperatures can sizzle to 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit.

If engineers decide the blanket needs to be fixed, Atlantis' astronauts could trim if off, tuck it back into protective tiles or cover it with a plate held in place by adhesive goo during three planned spacewalks or an extra one added to the schedule.

After the Columbia disaster, a shuttle repair kit was included in all shuttle missions.

Atlantis was scheduled to dock with the space station at 3:38 p.m. EDT Sunday.

Before arriving at the space station, at about 600 feet beneath the outpost, Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow will maneuver Atlantis into a 360-degree flip so that the three residents at the space station can take photos of the shuttle's belly and transmit them to Houston for inspection for damage.

Soon after the space station and shuttle dock while traveling 17,500 miles per hour, U.S. space station resident Sunita Williams and Atlantis crew member Clayton Anderson will trade out seatliners on the Russian emergency vehicle already attached to the station. The seatliner exchange marks the official replacement of Williams by Anderson as a resident of the space station.

Williams will return to Earth aboard Atlantis after more than six months in space.


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The latest updates on the STS-117 mission can be found in the Space Shuttle - Latest News thread in the Space News forum. The Mission Control Center status reports from this mission can be found in this thread: STS-117 MCC Status Reports.

Edited by Waspie_Dwarf

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