* 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 (Reuters) - 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,” Obama said.
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 the mission.
Atlantis is due back at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday. (Additional reporting by Chris Baltimore, Editing by Jane Sutton and Todd Eastham)