* Shuttle flying on NASA's 135th and last flight
* Crew delivered more than 5 tons of supplies for station
* Landing planned for Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center
(Adds call with President Obama, paragraph 11-13)
By Irene Klotz
HOUSTON, July 15 A U.S. astronaut on the final
shuttle mission said on Friday China's first space station will
be a welcome addition to the orbital brotherhood.
"China being in space I think is a great thing. The more
nations that get into space, the better cooperation we'll have
with each," Atlantis astronaut Rex Walheim said during an
in-flight interview with Reuters. "Space is one of the biggest
international brotherhoods we have."
The first module of China's planned Tiangong-I space
station arrived at its Gobi Desert launch site on June 29, the
Xinhua news agency reported. It is scheduled to fly later this
year on a Long March rocket and is to be visited by Chinese
astronauts -- known as taikonauts -- next year.
The United States is preparing to regroup its human
spaceflight program. It is retiring its three-ship shuttle
fleet upon Atlantis' return on July 21 in order to free up
funds to develop new vehicles that can travel beyond the space
station, where the shuttles cannot go.
Walheim and his three shuttle crewmates are halfway through
a planned 13-day mission, the final flight in the 30-year-old
shuttle program. They are delivering more than 5 tons of cargo
to the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of
16 nations that orbits 240 miles (380 km) above Earth.
The food, clothes, equipment and supplies aboard Atlantis
are intended to tide over the station until NASA's newly hired
cargo delivery companies, Space Exploration Technologies, or
SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corp ORB.N, are ready to begin
resupply missions next year.
Russia, Europe and Japan also operate freighters. Crew
ferry flights will be handled exclusively by Russia, at a cost
of more than $50 million per person, until U.S. commercial
firms develop that capability.
"It's going to be sad to retire the shuttle," said Atlantis
commander Chris Ferguson. "That said, it's had a very long and
storied career. It's done tremendous things."
The shuttle's legacy includes launching and servicing the
Hubble Space Telescope, dispatching planetary probes and
Earth-orbiting satellites and building the space station, which
is as big as five-bedroom house.
In a telephone call with U.S. President Barack Obama,
Ferguson said Atlantis' crew will leave an American flag
carried on the first U.S. shuttle mission behind on the station
when it undocks on July 19. That flag will be a prize for the
first commercial space craft to reach the station from U.S.
soil. "Good luck to whoever grabs that flag," Obama said.
Obama said that after the shuttle program ends NASA will
set its sights on other destinations, including Mars.
"While this mission marks the final flight of the space
shuttle program it also ushers in an exciting new era to push
the frontiers of space exploration and human space flight,"
Back at Mission Control in Houston, NASA was
trouble-shooting a problem with one of the shuttle's main
computers, which shut down Thursday night.
NASA flies five computers on the shuttle so the loss of one
will not affect the mission, officials said. The problem is
believed to be unrelated to another computer glitch earlier in
Atlantis is due back at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
(Additional reporting by Chris Baltimore, Editing by Jane
Sutton and Todd Eastham)