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Published: Monday, 11/16/2009

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on supply mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — Space shuttle Atlantis rocketed into orbit Monday with six astronauts and a full load of spare parts for the International Space Station.

The supply run should keep the space station humming for years to come, and the shuttle astronauts in space for 11 days.

Atlantis shot smoothly through a partly cloudy afternoon sky, to the delight of about 100 Twittering space enthusiasts who won front-row seats. It was NASA's first launch "tweetup," and the invitees splashed news — mostly tweeting "wow" and "amazing" about the liftoff — over countless cell phones and computers.

"We wish you good luck, godspeed, and we'll see you back here just after Thanksgiving," launch director Mike Leinbach told shuttle commander Charles Hobaugh right before liftoff, referring to the upcoming American harvest holiday.

Atlantis will reach the space station Wednesday. As the shuttle blasted off, the station was soaring 220 miles (354 kilometers) above the South Pacific.

"We're excited to take this incredible vehicle for a ride and meet up with another incredible vehicle," Hobaugh said.

NASA wants to stockpile as many pumps, tanks, gyroscopes and other oversize equipment as possible at the space station, before the three remaining shuttles retire next fall. None of the other visiting spacecraft is big enough to carry such large pieces.

The space agency expects to keep the space station flying until 2015, possibly 2020 if President Barack Obama gives the go-ahead.

During their 11-day flight, Hobaugh and his crew — including the first orthopedic surgeon in space, Dr. Robert Satcher Jr. — will unload the nearly 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) of equipment and experiments. Most of the gear will be attached to the outside of the space station on storage platforms.

Three spacewalks will be conducted beginning Thursday to hook everything up and get a jump on the next shuttle flight.

The launch seemed to go perfectly. Only three small pieces of foam insulation were spotted coming off the fuel tank, too late to be of any concern, said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's space operations.

"What a great way to start this mission," Gerstenmaier told reporters. He cautioned that the flight ahead was tough and "we need to stay focused."

While NASA officials were pleased, the Twittering invitees were downright ecstatic. They were among the first to sign up online last month for the opportunity to see a launch up close, and filed Twitter updates practically nonstop:

"Back in the tweetup tent. General attitude is 'Do it again! Do it again!'" one wrote.

"All 100 nasa twitters should be on the next shuttle!" another tweeted.

"Never been more proud to be a geeky, dorky, intelligent space fangirl!!" said another.

NASA estimates the 100 tweeters, or tweeps as they're called, have a following of more than 150,000. The space agency sees it as a beneficial outreach program, especially as the shuttle program winds down and the future remains murky. Obama has yet to chart a course for American astronauts, beyond the shuttle and station. A moon rocket under development is supposed to replace the shuttle, but the lunar exploration program is in jeopardy.

This is NASA's last shuttle flight of the year and one of only six remaining. If all goes as planned, the six spacemen will return to Earth the day after Thanksgiving Nov. 26, bringing home a seventh astronaut, Nicole Stott, who has been living at the space station since the end of August.

The astronauts will have to forgo the usual Thanksgiving fare. NASA did not pack any special turkey-and-trimming dinners aboard Atlantis. Hobaugh, the commander, didn't want any.

If the astronauts want poultry on Thanksgiving, they'll have to settle for turkey tetrazzini in rehydratable pouches or thermostabilized chicken fajitas. There's also plenty of barbecued beef brisket.



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