The countdown leading up to NASA's twelve-day mission began yesterday at 10pm PST, eventually culminating in Friday's 8:26 am launch (Pacific time!) at Cape Canaveral. If you feel like waking up to watch, OMSI will be showing the launch, via satellite, starting at 7 am this Friday in its planetarium.
Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a speech last Friday that even though all three of NASA's remaining shuttles are decommissioned and festering in museums, America still somehow wins (cue moar flags):
"Some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight.... I'm here to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success—and failure is not an option."
While there is some discussion of future landings beyond our humble planet and its moon, such as a mission to Mars or to select asteroids, these plans are tentative and frankly smell of appeasement.
Atlantis' four-person crew is one of the smallest in history. In addition to the typical delivery of supplies, Atlantis will fly the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), designed to “demonstrate and test the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space, even satellites not designed to be serviced," the STS-135 mission summary states. Ought we check the robots for Apple branding?
And don't worry. Our astronauts can still go to space. NASA is shelling out for seats on Russian-operated Soyuz spacecraft, for the nice price of $51 million apiece.
Last, if you're at all interested in the psychology of space travel, check out this super interesting letter, written for the loved ones of the astronauts in the event that the 1969 Apollo moon landing had failed.