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    Shuttle Atlantis blasts off on final mission


    by ODN


    The space shuttle Atlantis and six veteran astronauts have blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center to deliver a Russian module and spare parts to the International Space Station.

    The launch was the last for Atlantis, and the third-to-last for the shuttle program. Nasa is retiring the shuttles, which began flying in 1981, due to cost and safety issues. Sister ships Discovery and Endeavour are scheduled for their final flights later this year.

    Atlantis launched on Friday and headed towards an orbital rendezvous with the space station 220 miles above Earth. Docking is scheduled for Sunday.

    The shuttle carries a small laboratory and docking compartment that will be attached to the Russian side of the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations nearing completion after more than a decade of construction.

    The Mini Research Module, nicknamed "Rassvet", shares Atlantis' payload bay with a cargo carrier loaded with batteries, a spare communications antenna and an attachment for the station's Canadian-built robotic crane.