NASA launches shuttle Atlantis to space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis lifted off its seaside launch pad on Monday, loaded with spare parts to keep the International Space Station flying after the shuttles are retired next year.

NASA’s fifth and final flight of the year began at 2:28 p.m. EST when Atlantis’ twin booster rockets ignited, sending the 24-year-old ship through partly cloudy skies to begin its 31st journey into orbit. Docking at the space station was scheduled for Wednesday.

The shuttle carries nearly 30,000 pounds (13,610 kg) of equipment, most of which is too big to be launched by the Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships expected to keep the station supplied after the shuttles are retired.

Following the mission by Atlantis, which is scheduled to last 11 days, NASA plans five more flights to complete the station.

The shuttle is being replaced by a capsule-style spacecraft called Orion that can travel to the moon and other places in the solar system in addition to the space station, which orbits about 225 miles above Earth.

The station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations, has been under construction for more than a decade.

Atlantis’ six-man crew includes commander Charles Hobaugh, pilot Barry Wilmore, flight engineer Randy Bresnik, lead spacewalker Michael Foreman and astronauts Leland Melvin and Robert Satcher.

Wilmore, Bresnik and Satcher are making their first spaceflights. Joining the crew for the return flight home will be space station flight engineer Nicole Stott, the last station astronaut slated to fly on the shuttle.