The spare parts delivered to the International Space Station by Atlantis during the STS-129 mission will mean spare years on the station’s life once the space shuttle fleet is retired.
With only one U.S. module left to deliver, the Space Shuttle Program is turning its attention to helping the space station build up a store of replacement parts. There are only half a dozen flights left in the shuttle’s manifest before they stop flying, and as the only vehicle large enough to carry many of the big pieces of equipment into space, several of the flights are devoted to the task. This is the first, however, and as the first this mission is dedicated to taking up the spares of the highest priority.
NASA isn’t nearly done investing in the station, however, and the agenda of Atlantis’ crew makes that clear. In addition to the complex robotics work required to get the spares into place, there are three spacewalks scheduled to go on outside and a complicated rewiring project planned for the crew inside.
However, even with the shuttle crew at the station, resources aren’t unlimited. But unlike the other space shuttles, Atlantis wasn’t outfitted with the system that allows shuttles to draw power from the space station. That means that where recent station assembly missions have lasted up to 17 days, Atlantis has only 11 to get to the station and back.