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Shuttle Atlantis Soars Toward Orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - With a picture-perfect launch Friday afternoon to begin its last scheduled mission, the space shuttle Atlantis made its best case for winning another flight next year.

The shuttle blasted off from Kennedy Space Center into blue skies at 2:20 p.m., leaving behind a trail of smoke and hopes that Atlantis may launch once more.

"It looks like Atlantis is telling us, 'Please use me again, I am capable,'" said Alexey Krasnov, a Russian Federal Space Agency representative, in a news conference after the launch.

Six Atlantis astronauts, led by 45-year-old Navy Capt. Ken Ham, plan to deliver a Russian-built module and spare parts to the International Space Station during a 12-day mission that includes three spacewalks.

Docking at the orbiting research complex more than 200 miles above Earth is planned Sunday morning.

Also Sunday, NASA will decide whether a piece of orbiting space junk poses a threat to the station and its crew of six. If necessary, managers would maneuver the station out of the way before the shuttle arrives.

Officials said Atlantis' nine-minute climb to orbit appeared clean.

Preliminary looks at launch videos showed a couple of pieces of foam insulation shedding from the external fuel tank that were not believed to have damaged the orbiter.

"It looked really good," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

The Atlantis crew will spend much of Saturday conducting a standard heat shield inspection, producing images that will be reviewed by analysts in Houston for evidence of any damage from debris.

Friday's countdown drew tens of thousands of spectators to Brevard County hoping to see one of the final three planned shuttle launches - the 32nd and last scheduled for Atlantis.

But NASA hasn't ruled out the possibility Atlantis could fly again.

Upon its return, the shuttle will be prepared to serve as a rescue vehicle on standby for the final planned shuttle mission in November. Assuming that worst-case scenario doesn't play out, NASA could take advantage of the flight-ready hardware to launch a crew of four to the station, with rescue capability provided by Russian spacecraft.

"We're preparing for a contingency flight, but we're prepared that if someone asks us to make it a real flight, we can start that activity if they let us know by sometime in the June-July timeframe," said Gerstenmaier. "If they provide the funding, we'd be glad to go do that."

The additional flight by Atlantis would be targeted for June 2011, when it would best serve the space station with fresh supplies and spare parts.

NASA would likely need roughly $600 million to fly the mission.

As it is, Discovery is targeted to launch Sept. 16 and Endeavour in late November to complete the remaining missions before the shuttle fleet is retired.

Launch teams didn't dwell much on whether this was Atlantis' swan song, focusing instead on the mission ahead and the processing work that will follow.

Employees hung a mural in the Launch Control Center highlighting each Atlantis mission, the first of which was flown in October 1985, five years after the orbiter's construction began.

Launch Director Mike Leinbach noted the history in his final remarks to the crew before liftoff.

"On behalf of all the manufacturing, processing, flight and launch teams that have worked on Atlantis since March of 1980, I'd like to wish you all good luck, Godspeed, and have a little fun up there," he said.

"There's thousands of folks out there that have taken care of this bird for a long time," replied Ham, Atlantis' commander. "We're going to take her on her 32nd flight, and if you don't mind, we'll take her out of the barn and make a few more laps around the planet."

Joining Ham aboard Atlantis were pilot Tony Antonelli and mission specialists Steve Bowen, Mike Good, Garrett Reisman and Piers Sellers.

Each member of the veteran crew has flown in space at least once before.

Atlantis' return home to Kennedy Space Center, perhaps for the last time, is anticipated at 8:46 a.m. May 26, weather permitting.

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