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LYNN NEARY, host:

Back in October 1985, the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Atlantis was a military mission. So the launch time was secret, its cargo was secret, and the length of the mission was secret. Today, Atlantis is scheduled to blast off on what's supposed to be its final flight before being retired. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on its missions then and now.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Twenty-five years ago, countdowns went pretty much like they do now.

Unidentified Man #1: Three, two, one, ignition and lift off. Lift off with Atlantis. A new orbiter joins the shuttle fleet and it is...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But back then, Ronald Reagan was president, the Cold War was on, and NPR was reporting on a classified shuttle mission that sounded ominous.

CARL KASELL: Some private experts say the ship is carrying two satellites capable of relaying orders for a nuclear attack.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Today, Atlantis is sitting on the launch pad loaded with cargo that was built in Russia. It's a research lab that's part of NASA's collaboration with Russia and other countries to construct the International Space Station.

This is supposed to be the last flight of Atlantis. NASA managers want to end the shuttle program so the agency can develop new space vehicles - although Congress and the Obama administration are debating exactly how NASA should go forward. Atlantis will be the first shuttle in the fleet to stop flying, if all goes as planned. But Commander Ken Ham says his crew isn't so sure.

Commander KEN HAM (Astronaut): The six of us are calling this the first last flight of Atlantis. And I think that's appropriate because we really don't know what she's going to do next.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: After the astronauts return from their mission, workers will make Atlantis ready to fly again. It will be on stand-by, as a just-in-case rescue vehicle in the event that there's trouble during the very last shuttle flight ever. Right now, the honor of that final mission has fallen to Endeavour, which is scheduled to launch in November.

Since Atlantis will be ready to go, however, some have suggested that this shuttle fly one more time, after Endeavour has returned safely. NASA administrator Charlie Bolden testified at a Senate hearing this week that another flight could help supply the space station.

Mr. CHARLIE BOLDEN (NASA administrator): It is not an easy decision, though, because I will have no launch-on-need vehicle to back it up - and that's not trivial, that decision to do that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For now, folks at NASA say they're staying focused on just getting ready for today's launch attempt.

Angela Brewer is a manager at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, who's worked with Atlantis for over a decade. She says there's no plans for cake or anything special to mark the occasion.

Ms. ANGELA BREWER (Manager, Kennedy Space Center): We really don't know at this time what the future holds. We'll just keep doing our jobs. And when they tell us it's over, we'll celebrate then what we've done and what we've accomplished, which is a lot.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says this is very personal for the workers who spend hours with Atlantis and treat it almost like a member of the family.

Ms. BREWER: And I think if you ask anybody out here, they love what they do. It's a part of them. And we would fly shuttles until they told us, you know -until they tell us we can't, we'd love to keep flying.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The final planned flight of Atlantis is scheduled to lift off this afternoon at 2:20 p.m. Eastern.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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