NASA to use Atlantis for one final mission in 2011?

One (more) giant leap? Image: Matthew Simantov/Flickr.

For all intents and purposes, the space shuttle Atlantis this week ended its long-standing run of service with NASA, clocking up some 120 million miles as it returned from its final supply mission to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

Yet, while the U.S. space administration has only two more scheduled flights to the ISS planned before the entire shuttle fleet is officially retired at the end of 2010, USA Today is reporting that Atlantis may well be rolled out for a final, final mission in the summer of 2011.

Quoting Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, the publication outlined that “decision-makers in Congress and the White House’s science and budget offices have been briefed on the pros and cons of an extra mission,” to which NASA wants a concrete answer before the end of June.

Should such a mission be green-lit, Atlantis would remain in service in order to ensure that the ISS is well stocked as NASA continues to develop alternate means of getting future cargo and maintenance missions to and from the space station.

However, although an extension to the space shuttle program would provide continued employment for the approximately 8,000 staff at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the estimated $600 million USD required to prolong the lifespan of Atlantis isn’t presently available through NASA’s budget.

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