Atlantis crew flies to Florida for emergency training, practice countdown

CBS News

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--The crew of the final shuttle mission flew to Florida Monday to review emergency procedures and to participate in a dress-rehearsal countdown Thursday, a major milestone on the road to launch July 8.

"I think I speak on behalf of the crew, everyone in the astronaut office and I'm sure everybody here at KSC, we're just trying to savor the moment," commander Christopher Ferguson told reporters at the shuttle runway. "As our children and our children's children ask us, we want to be able to say we remember when there was a space shuttle and like I said, we're savoring every moment, trying to take it all in and looking forward to an incredible mission."

The Atlantis astronauts at the shuttle runway Monday (left to right) Sandra Magnus, pilot Douglas Hurley, commander Christopher Ferguson and flight engineer Rex Walheim. (Credit: NASA TV)
Engineers at pad 39A worked Monday to install Atlantis' payload -- an Italian-built module packed with supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station -- into the orbiter's cargo bay amid the start of X-ray inspections of the ship's external tank. Engineers want to make sure structural stiffeners riveted onto rib-like stringers in the tank did not develop any temperature-induced stress-relief cracks during a fueling test Wednesday.

At the same time, engineers are starting work to replace a hydrogen valve in main engine No. 3 that showed signs of a leak during the fueling test. The X-ray inspections and the valve replacement work are expected to take the rest of the week.

NASA managers plan to meet at the Florida spaceport June 28 to review processing and to set an official launch date. As of this writing, Atlantis appears to be on track for blastoff July 8 as planned.

Flying in T-38 jet trainers, Atlantis' crew -- Ferguson, pilot Douglas Hurley, flight engineer Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus -- landed at the Kennedy Space Center's shuttle runway Monday afternoon for a traditional terminal countdown demonstration test, or TCDT.

During the three-day exercise, the astronauts will review emergency procedures before strapping in aboard Atlantis for a dress-rehearsal countdown Thursday. Ferguson and Hurley also will practice landing procedures in a NASA business jet that has been modified to handle like a space shuttle on final approach.

Ferguson said the crew was "incredibly proud" to serve aboard NASA"s final shuttle mission. As for what comes next -- commercial spacecraft and, eventually, a NASA deep space exploration vehicle -- Ferguson said "you can be absolutely sure of one thing. And that is, if you take the fact that we have been sustaining a human presence on the International Space Station for the last 10 years ... regardless of what transpires over the next several years, and we'll go through, I'm sure, a few gyrations, we're going to have a nice, solid program in place to go back and forth to the space station and then hopefully beyond low-Earth orbit."

After the fueling test last week, NASA moved the Raffaello cargo module to the launch pad for installation into Atlantis' cargo bay Monday. While a protective gantry was pulled away from the spacecraft, reporters and photographers were allowed to visit the pad Friday for a final chance to photograph a space shuttle from the pad gantry and the surface of its mobile launch platform. Here is a gallery of views from the rotating service structure, the fixed service tower and the mobile launch platform.

The shuttle Atlantis at dawn. (Credit: All photos by William Harwood/CBS News unless otherwise noted)

NASA's white cargo canister, carrying the Rafaello module, can be seen loaded into the payload changeout room of the Rotating Service Structure.

Looking down from the 195-foot level of the fixed gantry. Engineers can be seen working near a gaseous hydrogen vent line to the left of the white solid-fuel booster.

Photographers on the rotating service structure "shoot" Atlantis.

(Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now)

The walkway leading to the "white room," gateway to the shuttle's crew compartment.