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Atlantis blasts off towards space station

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Atlantis lifts off
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off Monday on schedule at 2:28 p.m. ET
  • Shuttle launched on schedule from the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral
  • The delivery of key spare parts will add years to the space station's life
  • The space shuttle fleet is to be retired next year

(CNN) -- Space shuttle Atlantis launched Monday afternoon to deliver key spare parts to prolong the life of the International Space Station.

The shuttle lifted off as scheduled, at 2:28 p.m. ET from the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral.

The delivery will add years to the station's life after the space shuttle fleet is retired next year, according to NASA. Monday's launch is among six planned before then.

"You'll see this theme in some of the flights that are going to come after ours as well," said Brian Smith, the lead space station flight director for the 11-day mission. "This flight is all about spares. Basically, we're getting them up there while we still can."

Some parts are for systems that keep the station from overheating or tumbling through space, according to NASA.

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"We're taking the big ones," Smith said. "And not only are they the big ones -- they're the ones deemed most critical. That's why they're going up first."

The six-member crew will return to Earth with flight engineer Nicole Stott, who launched in August.

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Gallery: Space shuttle Atlantis launches

The mission also will include three spacewalks and installation of two platforms to the station's backbone. The platforms will hold spare parts to sustain station operations after the shuttles are discontinued.

"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," NASA said. iReporter attends NASA "Tweet-up"

Other items set for delivery include nitrogen and ammonia tank assemblies, a high-pressure gas tank and the station's robotic arm. The tanks help cool and pressurize the station.