CAPE CANAVERAL — The space shuttle Atlantis roared into orbit at 2:28 p.m. EST Monday, arching through light clouds to begin an 11-day mission to the International Space Station and bringing the 28-year-old shuttle program one step closer to retirement.
The successful liftoff — one of the most trouble-free in the history of the program — reduces the number of remaining launches to five and marks the first NASA mission completely devoted to stocking the station with spare parts — such as pumps and gyroscopes — so that the floating observatory can continue long past the orbiter’s 2010 retirement.
But the launch came amid major worries about NASA’s future, as the agency has been told by the White House to consider cutting its 2011 budget by as much as 10 percent. Based on the agency’s proposed 2009-2010 budget of $18.7 billion, that would equal roughly $1.87 billion.
That kind of cut would end human spaceflight for at least the next decade — and likely longer — according to a presidential space panel that recommended last month a $3 billion-a-year spending increase so that NASA could run a “meaningful” manned-space program.
“If that’s the case, we as a nation need to face the fact that we’re not committed to exploration,” said former astronaut Leroy Chiao, who served on the 10-member committee led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine.
But a senior administration official, who is not authorized to speak on the record, cautioned not to read too much into the proposed reductions. The official said agencies were given “global” instructions to cut their budgets by 5 to 10 percent to help reduce the record $1.4 trillion deficit.
“When the president makes a decision on human spaceflight, he can ignore that,” said the official.
President Barack Obama convened the Augustine committee this summer to evaluate NASA’s Constellation program, which aims to build new Ares rockets and Orion capsules that could be ready to reach the station by 2015 and return astronauts to the moon by 2020. The committee found that NASA needs up to $3 billion more a year just to return astronauts to the space station by 2017, with a moon mission farther in the future.
With that bleak estimation, any talk of budget cuts sends chills through NASA and Kennedy Space Center, which is set to lose as many as 7,000 jobs when the shuttle is retired. Any further delay in launching a replacement could make the space center more of a ghost town than already expected.
On Monday, NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters that he does not expect to know what the White House will do until February. But he said the uncertainty has made it difficult for NASA as it flies out the remaining missions.
“How do we keep our workforce and ourselves focused on what we are doing and don’t get too distracted by all the ‘what if’ scenarios?” he said.
The reality of just five more flights also is starting to resonate with the launch team. “It is starting to hit home, I have to admit to you. It is starting to hit home,” said Mike Leinbach, launch director at the space center.
But for one day, the worries were put on the back burner.
Minutes before liftoff, Atlantis commander Charlie Hobaugh said: “We’re excited to take this incredible vehicle for a ride, and meet up with another incredible vehicle, the International Space Station.”
Atlantis, loaded with crucial spare parts, is expected to dock with the station Wednesday. The parts should enable the station to extend its operating life by years,
Also on the mission is pilot Barry E. Wilmore, a Navy captain; mission specialists Leland Melvin, a scientist and former NFL football player; Mike Foreman, a U.S. Navy Captain and veteran spacewalker; Marine Lt. Col. Randy Bresnick and Robert Satcher, an orthopedic surgeon.
Wilmore, Bresnick and Satcher were all first-time fliers.
The 11-day flight will keep the astronauts in orbit through Thanksgiving. They will unload nearly 30,000 pounds of pumps, tanks and other spare parts, as well as science experiments.
Atlantis will return to Earth with astronaut Nicole Stott, who has been one of the station’s six crew members since late August.