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STS-135 (ISS assembly flight ULF7) was the 135th and final mission of the American Space Shuttle program. It used the orbiter Atlantis and hardware originally processed for the STS-335 contingency mission, which was not flown. STS-135 launched on July 8, 2011, and landed on July 21, 2011, following a one-day mission extension. The four-person crew was the smallest of any shuttle mission since STS-6 in April 1983. The mission's primary cargo was the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) Raffaello and a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier (LMC), which were delivered to the International Space Station (ISS). The flight of Raffaello marked the only time that Atlantis carried an MPLM.
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During an address at the Marshall Space Flight Center on November 16, 2010, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that the agency needed to fly STS-135 to the station in 2011 due to possible delays in the development of commercial rockets and spacecraft designed to transport cargo to the ISS. "We are hoping to fly a third shuttle mission (in addition to STS-133 and STS-134) in June 2011, what everybody calls the launch-on-need mission... and that's really needed to [buy down] the risk for the development time for commercial cargo", Bolden said.
The federal budget approved in April 2011 called for US$5.5 billion for NASA's space operations division, including the shuttle and space station programs. According to NASA, the budget running through September 30, 2011, ended all concerns about funding the STS-135 mission.
NASA announced the STS-335/135 crew on September 14, 2010. Only four astronauts were assigned to this mission, versus the normal six or seven, because there were no other shuttles available for a rescue following the retirement of Discovery and Endeavour. If the shuttle was seriously damaged in orbit, the crew would have moved into the International Space Station and returned in Russian Soyuz capsules, one at a time, over the course of a year. All STS-135 crew members were custom-fitted for a Russian Sokol space suit and molded Soyuz seat liner for this possibility. The reduced crew size also allowed the mission to maximize the payload carried to the ISS. It was the only time that a Shuttle crew of four flew to the ISS. The last shuttle mission to fly with just four crew members occurred 28 years earlier: STS-6 on April 4, 1983, aboard Space Shuttle Challenger.
With support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the fate of STS-135 ultimately depended on whether lawmakers could agree to fund converting the mission from launch-on-need to an actual flight. On July 15, 2010, a Senate committee passed the 2010 NASA reauthorization bill, authored by Senator Bill Nelson, to direct NASA to fly an extra Space Shuttle mission (STS-135) pending a review of safety concerns. The bill still needed the approval of the full Senate. A draft NASA reauthorization bill considered by the House Science & Technology Committee did not provide for an extra shuttle mission. On July 22, 2010, during a meeting of the House Science Committee, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas successfully amended the House version of the bill to add an additional shuttle mission to the manifest.
On October 11, 2010, Obama signed the legislation into law, allowing NASA to move forward with STS-135, though without specific funding. Generally, the average cost of a shuttle mission was about $450 million.
STS-135 delivered supplies and equipment to provision the space station through 2012, following the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program. Since the ISS program was extended to 2024 (now 2030), the station is resupplied by the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program which took over resupply missions from the Shuttle. A shuttle extension beyond STS-135 wasn't seriously considered, and an ISS extension was never intended to be a guaranteed shuttle program extension, and the Shuttle program officially ended after STS-135.
The Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) Raffaello made up the majority of the payload. This was Raffaello's fourth trip to the International Space Station since 2001 and the 12th use of an MPLM. Unlike previous MPLM missions that delivered large compartments and devices to outfit the space station laboratories, STS-135 delivered only bags and supply containers. The MPLM was filled with 16 resupply racks, which is the maximum that it could handle. Eight Resupply Stowage Platforms (RSPs), two Integrated Stowage Platforms (ISPs), six Resupply Stowage Racks (RSRs) and one Zero-G Stowage Rack (ZSR), which sits above another rack during transport.
The mission was furthermore the third flight of the TriDAR sensor package designated DTO-701A (Detailed Test Objective), a 3D dual-sensing laser camera, intended for use as an autonomous rendezvous and docking sensor. It was developed by Neptec Design Group and funded by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. TriDAR had previously flown on STS-128 and STS-131, aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. TriDAR provides guidance information that can be used for rendezvous and docking operations in orbit, planetary landings and vehicle inspection/navigation of robotic rovers. It does not rely on any reference markers, such as reflectors, positioned on the target spacecraft, instead using a laser-based 3D sensor and a thermal imager. Geometric information contained in successive 3D images is matched against the known shape of the target object to calculate its position and orientation in real-time.
STS-135 returned to Earth carrying several items of downmass payload. The failed ammonia Pump Module that was replaced in August 2010 was returned inside Atlantis's payload bay, on the upper side of the LMC. Also, a problematic Common Cabin Air Assembly (CCAA) Heat Exchanger (HX) was expected to be returned inside the MPLM. The shuttle also brought back material, including experiments, in its middeck lockers. Since STS-135 only had four crew members, astronauts did not occupy the middeck. Resultingly, compared to previous shuttle missions to the Space Station, additional storage space was available.
Inside the VAB transfer aisle, lifting operations to rotate Atlantis vertically commenced on May 18, 2011. The crane that hoisted the shuttle placed it into the adjacent high bay. Atlantis was next lowered to meet up with the external tank and the two solid rocket boosters. The mating operations were completed on May 19, 2011. On the same day, NASA officially announced July 8, 2011, as the intended launch date of the STS-135 mission.
On June 18, engineers also commenced X-ray inspections to verify the performance of the radius block doublers that were installed over the top of the stringers. The stringers form the backbone of ET-138's central "intertank" compartment that separates the upper liquid oxygen tank from the larger liquid hydrogen tank below. The installation of the doublers on ET-138 was ordered after engineers found stringer cracks in the tank used for Discovery's STS-133 mission. Technicians finished all X-ray scans of the stringers on June 24, well ahead of schedule. After analyzing the results, they found no issues.
The STS-135 crew then traveled to Kennedy Space Center, arriving in T-38 training jets just after 17:30 EDT on June 20 to take part in the countdown dress rehearsal and emergency training drills. After the arrival, the four astronauts spoke to reporters at the runway and acknowledged the historic nature of the final shuttle mission. "We're incredibly proud to represent the final flight," noted the commander, Chris Ferguson. During the training, the crew spent time learning pad 39A evacuation procedures and test-drove an armored tank available for the astronauts to escape the area. They also boarded Atlantis for a full countdown simulation on June 23.
After opening the shuttle's payload bay doors at 17:03:20 GMT, the crew began configuring Atlantis for on-orbit operations. The Ku-band antenna was deployed and the self-test was completed with satisfactory results. CAPCOM astronaut Barry Wilmore radioed the crew from mission control in Houston, reporting that a preliminary analysis found no signs of any significant debris or impact damage during the ascent. Commander Ferguson and Pilot Hurley also powered up the Shuttle's Robotic Arm and checked its functions ahead of next day's planned thermal protection survey.
While the TPS survey was under way, Mission Specialist Walheim spent much of his afternoon on the shuttle's middeck. He worked to prepare items carried into orbit there for transfer to the space station. Later in the day, Walheim worked with Hurley to check out the rendezvous tools that would be used during Atlantis's docking with the ISS on Flight Day 3. Meanwhile, Ferguson and Magnus installed the center-line camera in the window of the shuttle's hatch for a view that would help them align Atlantis with the space station.
During the mission status briefing from the Johnson Space Flight Center (JSC), shuttle flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho said that Atlantis was off to one of the smoothest starts of any mission in the 30-year history of NASA's shuttle program. He told reporters, "I think this is certainly one of the better starts that we have seen".
The crew then got to work with Ferguson and Hurley using the shuttle arm to take its OBSS from the station's Canadarm2 operated by Garan and Furukawa. The station arm had plucked the OBSS from its stowage position on the shuttle cargo bay sill. The handoff was to prepare to use the boom for any shuttle heat shield late inspections if required. Magnus worked with TV setup and Walheim transferred spacewalk gear.
Flight day 5 saw Expedition 28 Flight Engineers Mike Fossum and Ron Garan perform a spacewalk. Because of a short training flow and a requirement to launch the shuttle with a reduced crew of four, NASA opted not to utilize two spacewalkers from the STS-135 crew. The main tasks for the spacewalk included retrieving a failed pump module from an external stowage platform of the ISS for return to Earth inside the shuttle's cargo bay, installing two experiments and repairing a new base for the station's robotic arm. The spacewalk began at 13:22 UTC (NASA Rule). For identification, Fossum's EMU spacesuit had red stripes around the legs, while Garan's had no markings. The spacewalkers used Canadarm2 to retrieve the pump module which failed in 2010. Operated by STS-135 Pilot Hurley and Mission Specialist Magnus in the station's cupola, Garan rode Canadarm2 to the pump module's stowage platform where he and Fossum removed it. Still on the arm, Garan took the pump module inside Atlantis's payload bay. There Fossum bolted it into place on the LMC. The astronauts next removed the Robotics Refueling Mission (RRM) experiment from the payload bay. Fossum, now on the arm, carried the experiment to a platform on Dextre for temporary storage, while Garan cleaned up tools and equipment in the payload bay of Atlantis. Recognizing the historical significance, Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, who served as the intra-vehicular officer to coordinate the spacewalk from Atlantis's flight deck, radioed: "Take a look around, Ronny. You're the last EVA person in the payload bay of a shuttle."