NASA's 25-year space veteran is expected to blast off Friday on its official final flight before retirement. But once it returns, workers will make it ready to fly again as a back-up for Endeavour in November. If Atlantis isn't called into service, some are suggesting an extra flight be squeezed in to the last days of the shuttle program.
When space shuttle Atlantis blasted off on its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, NASA didn't tell the public what its newest shuttle would do in space -- its Cold War military mission was secret.
Now, though, Atlantis waits on the launch pad for what's expected to be its final mission, loaded with cargo built in Russia.
And the only real mystery is whether this will truly be the last time that Atlantis gets to fly.
Commander Ken Ham says his crew is calling this mission "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."
NASA managers want to end the space shuttle program so the agency can develop new space vehicles, although Congress and the Obama administration are currently debating how exactly NASA should go forward.
Atlantis is supposed to be the first shuttle in the aging fleet to stop flying. During its planned final mission, the shuttle will carry up a Russian-built research lab that's part of NASA's collaboration with other countries to construct the international space station.
But after the astronauts return, NASA workers at Kennedy Space Center in Florida will make Atlantis ready to fly again.
That's because Atlantis 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 the shuttle fly one last 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 with spare parts and other essentials that will be harder to bring up after the shuttles no longer fly.
"It is not an easy decision, though, because I will have no launch-on-need vehicle to back it up," said Bolden, "and that's not trivial, that decision to do that."
For now, workers at NASA say they're staying focused on just getting ready for the last planned launch attempt.
Angela Brewer, who manages launch processing for Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center, says there are no plans for cake or parties or anything special to mark the occasion.
"We really don't know at this time what the future holds," Brewer says. "We'll just, you know, keep doing our jobs. And you know, when they tell us it's over, we'll celebrate then."
She says this whole experience is very personal for the workers who spend hours with Atlantis and treat the shuttle almost like a member of the family.
"I think if you ask anybody out here, they love what they do. It's a part of them," Brewer says. "Until they tell us we can't, we'd love to keep flying."
She's worked exclusively with Atlantis for more than a decade, and feels like her connection to this shuttle will last even after it becomes a museum exhibit.
"Wherever she ends up," says Brewer, "I want to be able to go there and see her and reminisce." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.