Atlantis' parts will be used by the remaining shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour, until the aging spacecraft are mothballed in 2010, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told workers at the Kennedy Space Center last week.
Atlantis, which began flying in 1985, as the fourth orbiter in the fleet launched from Kennedy Space Center, was chosen for retirement first since it was scheduled for maintenance, a process that could take two years.
The shuttle was named after the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966, because that vessel explored what was thought to be the final frontier.
When Atlantis was built, it weighed 7,000 pounds less than the first shuttle, Columbia.
The $3 billion shuttle likely will have four or five more flights to the international space station before retirement.
Due to the extent of repairs Atlantis is slated for, it would be sidelined for most of the current shuttle program's lifespan even if not retired, a NASA spokesman said.
"The reasoning is instead of taking it off-line for two years and spending a lot of money to return it to flight when it probably would fly only one time at the most, why spend that extra money, when you don't need to?" NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham said Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center.
NASA has planned 17 more shuttle flights before the program ends in 2010.
The next-generation vehicles are expected to be ready no later than 2014.
Most of the nearly 15,000 NASA and contractor employees at the space center work on the shuttle program, but they likely will be unaffected by the retirement of Atlantis, Buckingham said.