NASA mission STS-135, scheduled to launch on July 8, 2011, will be the final flight of the venerable and invaluable space shuttle program. Atlantis will be the last member of the surviving shuttle fleet to slip the surly bonds of Earth, carrying a crew of four astronauts into orbit for a 12-day resupply and repair mission to the International Space Station.
As this is the final space shuttle flight — and thus the last chance to use the shuttle’s massive payload capacity to service the ISS — Atlantis is jam-packed with components and supplies. (Not to worry, the shuttle’s swan song isn’t strictly a cargo run. Atlantis will test a new robotic system for repairing and refueling satellites in orbit — a function that will be necessary now that the shuttle’s massive orbital work platform and robotic grapple arm are being retired.) This cargo duty partially explains one of the more extraordinary aspects of STS-135: its four-man crew.
Not since the maiden flight of Challenger in 1983 has a space shuttle operated with just a four-man complement. This reduced crew size can accommodate the extra payload on STS-135, but the payload isn’t the reason Atlantis is flying with the smallest crew in 28 years. That’s just a bonus.
WHY DOES THE LAST SPACE SHUTTLE FLIGHT HAVE THE SMALLEST CREW IN 28 YEARS?