NASA's fourth space shuttle, Atlantis (OV-104), was named after the two-masted boat that served as the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966. Following the contract award on Jan. 29, 1979, construction of shuttleAtlantis began on March 3, 1980. Thanks to lessons learned in the construction and testing of shuttles Enterprise, Columbia and Challenger,Atlantis was completed in about half the man-hours spent on buildingColumbia. This is largely attributed to the use of large thermal protection blankets on the shuttle's upper body, rather than individual tiles requiring more attention. Weighing in at 151,315 pounds when it rolled out of the assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., on March 6, 1985, Atlantis was nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia.
Atlantis served as the on-orbit launch site for many noteworthy spacecraft, including planetary probes Magellan and Galileo, as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. An impressive array of onboard science experiments took place during most missions to further enhance space research in low Earth orbit.
Starting with STS-71, Atlantis pioneered the Shuttle-Mir missions, flying the first seven missions to dock with the Russian space station. The missions to Mir included the first on-orbit U.S. crew exchanges, now a common occurrence on the International Space Station. On STS-79, the fourth docking mission, Atlantis ferried astronaut Shannon Lucid back to Earth after her record-setting 188 days in orbit aboard Mir.
In recent years, Atlantis has delivered several vital components to the International Space Station, including the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny, the Quest airlock and multiple sections of the truss structure that makes up the station's backbone.