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BOX ELDER COUNTY -- The space shuttle Atlantis blasted into orbit Monday on a crucial mission: the final service call to the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle program itself is on the verge of dying out, a major turning point for one of northern Utah's biggest employers.
When the rockets roar and the liftoff kicks in former astronaut Kent Rominger knows what that kick in the pants feels like. "You leap into the air. It's almost like being rear-ended at a stoplight," he said.
While watching Monday's televised launch with a colleague, Rominger recalled his five trips into space. "There's no doubt in your mind, when the solids ignite you're going somewhere," he said.
The solids, the Solid Rocket Boosters, are built at ATK. Workers applauded when the boosters finished burning two minutes into the launch. Rominger is now an ATK vice president.
"It's exciting to see it go. It really is a bunch of sequential miracles have to happen for it to liftoff and fly like that," he said.
This is the last shuttle flight to maintain the Hubble Space Telescope, which continues to produce memorable images of the furthest, oldest things in the Universe.
"When you look around on the Internet and just see these photos that are phenomenal, they don't even look real. The majority of those are from Hubble," Rominger said.
ATK designed and built 140 tools the spacewalking astronauts will use. It's one of the last missions before the shuttle itself is retired. "ATK, here, has become kind of the ‘Home Depot' for satellite repair," Rominger said.
There is likely to be a gap of two to five years when the United States will have no capability of putting astronauts in space. "I think we're down to nine, maybe eight missions that are left on the books," Rominger said.
Russian rockets will take up the slack, ferrying U.S. astronauts to the Space Station, but ATK is already developing and testing rockets for the shuttle's replacement, the Aries Spacecraft.
After every shuttle flight, the ATK boosters are recovered from the Atlantic and returned to Utah. They're refurbished, refueled and sent back to Florida.