Astronauts test re-entry systems, pack for landing

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 11:14 PM EDT, 07/19/11: Astronauts test re-entry systems, pack for landing
  • Updated at 01:15 AM EDT, 07/20/11: Updating landing times
  • Updated at 06:30 AM EDT, 07/20/11: Adding CBS News crew interview; flight control system checkout complete
CBS News

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--The crew of the shuttle Atlantis, working through one of the busiest days of their mission, tested the orbiter's re-entry systems and packed up for landing Thursday to close out NASA's 135th and final shuttle mission.

Commander Christopher Ferguson, back row left, jokingly pats Sandra Magnus' "space hair" during a final round of media interviews Wednesday. (Credit: NASA)
Along with deploying a small solar cell research satellite, commander Christopher Ferguson and pilot Douglas Hurley practiced landing procedures with a video game-like simulator and all four astronauts -- Ferguson, Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim -- fielded a final round of questions from the media.

"What I've kind of told everybody all along was that we were not going to fully appreciate the significance of the event until after the wheels have stopped," Ferguson told CBS News. "Just yesterday in the middeck I was talking to Sandy about the fact that you know what, I really do feel like it's coming near the end. And I can almost sense that final 'wheels stopped' call.

"It's going to be tough, it's going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years. But we're going to try to keep it upbeat, we're going to try to keep it light and we're going to try to make it a celebration of the tremendous, crowning achievements that have occurred over the last 30 years with the tremendous satellites that have been deployed from the shuttle and of course, construction of the International Space Station."

Floating in the shuttle cockpit with Hurley, Magnus and Walheim, Ferguson said the 135th shuttle mission successfully delivered enough supplies, equipment and spare parts to the International Space Station to keep the lab complex going through 2012. That will give NASA a bit of a cushion in case commercial rocket companies run into problems developing new unmanned cargo ships to take over from the shuttle.

"No mission is successful until you're finally on the ground," Ferguson said. "I would have to say that up to this point, it's been highly successful. Sandy, Rex, Doug, we all put forth 110 percent, we got about (five-and-a-half tons) of cargo transferred into and out of space station. We have them all set, they're in a good posture to wait for about a year until commercial partners come on board and begin the resupply missions the shuttle formerly had."

Commercial cargo ships will be joined by private sector manned spacecraft later in the decade, part of a push by the Obama administration to turn over "routine" transportation to and from low-Earth orbit to commercial rocket providers while NASA focuses on deep space exploration. Critics have charged that tight budgets and uncertain political support put manned spaceflight at risk in the United States, but Walheim told CBS News he sees a bright future.

"We're in a kind of a transition period, which is a little bit uncomfortable as usual," he said. "But what we're going to be doing is handing over the access to low-Earth orbit, getting to the space station, to commercial providers. That'll free up NASA to do the heavy lifting of the beyond-low-Earth orbit flights, to go to places we haven't been for a long time, or ever, like the moon or an asteroid or maybe Mars.

"So it's a kind of a two-pronged effort," he said. "We'll get through this transition part. It'll be hard, but we'll get there and we'll be going farther and farther and going new places real soon."

Magnus said the program would succeed because of "a huge number of people worldwide who passionately believe in space flight and who dedicate their lives to it."

"And it's because of these people that the shuttle program was so successful for the last 30 years, and we were able to do the amazing things we were able to do," she said. "It's because of these people the International Space Station has been so successful and will continue to be successful."

In a lighter moment, Magnus was asked whether her crewmates ever gave her a hard time because of her "space hair."

"Usually for events like this, I like to leave it out because it demonstrates we are indeed in zero gravity," she laughed. "I mean, these guys have kind of boring hair, so it's not so fun. But they do give me trouble occasionally about the Medusa-like effect of it."

Shuttle crews normally include six or seven astronauts to get all the day-before-landing chores done. But Atlantis was launched with a reduced crew of four to accommodate possible rescue scenarios, complicating the pre-entry timeline. Even though he knew the workload would be challenging, Hurley said he was surprised at the fast pace of the crew's work in orbit.

"We've had to just work so closely together and be so well coordinated because you know, your typical shuttle mission, there's six or seven folks, so you tend to be working more with another person," he told CBS. "And there've been a lot of times where we've just had to depend on the other person to cover a separate task. I don't think I fully appreciated how much more work we'd have to do with only four. So it's been a little bit of an eye opener, because we really have been just stretching it, working very hard every day."

But that's not to say they haven't had a bit of fun occasionally. After launching the small solar cell research satellite -- Picosat -- Walheim read a "deployment poem" to mission control:
One more satellite takes its place in the sky,
The last of many that the shuttle let fly.
Magellan, Galileo, Hubble, and more
Have sailed beyond her payload bay doors.
There's still science books, and still more to come,
The shuttle's legacy will live on when her flying is done.
We wish Picosat success, in space where it roams,
They can stay up here, but we're goin' home.
Yes soon for the last time we'll gently touch down,
Then celebrate the shuttle with our friends on the ground.
With good weather expected, Ferguson and Hurley plan to fire Atlantis' braking rockets at 4:49:04 a.m. Thursday to drop out of orbit. Landing at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for 5:56:58 a.m. A second opportunity is available one orbit later at 7:32:55 a.m.

NASA is not staffing its backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on Thursday. If the weather or some other problem prevents a Florida landing, the crew will remain in orbit an additional 24 hours and head for one coast or the other on Friday.

Assuming an on-time landing, Atlantis will have logged 5,284,862 miles during its 33rd mission, pushing the orbiter's total mileage to 125,935,769 miles. Over the course of its career, Atlantis will have spent 307 days in space, logging 4,848 orbits.

Earlier this week, Ferguson told the lead flight control team, ending its final shift at the Johnson Space Center, "to look up and make a memory."

"And I'll say that to everybody who has an opportunity to perhaps see the landing realtime or see the shuttle on the runway," he told an interviewer Wednesday. "Take a good look at it and make a memory, because you're never going to see anything like this again. It's been an incredible ride."

Here is an updated timeline of the remainder of the crew's planned activities for flight day 13 (in EDT and mission elapsed time; includes revision M of the NASA television schedule; best viewed with fixed-width font):

06:34 AM...11...19...05...00...L-1 comm check (Merritt Island)
06:54 AM...11...19...25...00...Deorbit review
07:24 AM...11...19...55...00...Cabin stow resumes
07:59 AM...11...20...30...00...Playback of undocking video
08:00 AM...11...20...31...00...Mission status briefing on NASA TV
09:49 AM...11...22...20...00...L-1 comm check (Dryden)
09:49 AM...11...22...20...00...Ergometer stow
10:00 AM...11...22...31...00...STS-135 ascent highlights replay
10:14 AM...11...22...45...00...Wing leading edge sensor deactivation
10:34 AM...11...23...05...00...PGSC laptop computer stow (part 1)
11:00 AM...11...23...31...00...STS-135 ascent highlights replay
11:39 AM...12...00...10...00...Ku-band antenna stow
01:29 PM...12...02...00...00...Crew sleep begins
03:00 PM...12...03...31...00..."Launching our Dreams" video on NASA TV
04:00 PM...12...04...31...00...Flight day 13 highlights on NASA TV
09:59 PM...12...10...30...00...Crew wakeup