STS-135 Mission Preview

CBS News Space Analyst

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL-- NASA is readying the shuttle Atlantis for launch Friday on the iconic program's 135th and final flight, bringing the curtain down on one of the nation's greatest technological triumphs after more than three decades at the apex of manned spaceflight.

Carrying a reduced crew of four to minimize post-launch rescue complications, Atlantis is scheduled for liftoff at 11:26:46 a.m. EDT (GMT-4), roughly the moment Earth's rotation carries launch complex 39A into the plane of the International Space Station's orbit.

Strapped in on Atlantis' upper flight deck will be commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Douglas Hurley, flight engineer Rex Walheim and space station veteran Sandra Magnus. All four are spaceflight veterans and all four clearly recognize the historic nature of their voyage.

The shuttle Atlantis stands poised for launch on its final mission. (Credit: William Harwood/CBS News)

"This is the right crew for the right time," Ferguson said last week. "We've had only nine months to train, we've had only four crew members to do it with. In that short period of time, we've managed to have a lot of fun, we've managed to laugh and we've managed to get an awful, awful lot of work done. What a great group of people. It's been my honor and pleasure to work with them, and it's going to be absolutely a joy to fly with them."

Huge crowds are expected as space aficionados, tourists and area residents turn out for a final chance to see the world's most powerful manned spaceship blast off for the last time. Brevard County officials expect between a half million and 750,000 spectators to jam area roads and beaches.

"That is the most graceful, beautiful vehicle we've had to fly in space, ever, and it's going to be a long time until you see a vehicle roll out to the pad that looks as beautiful as that," Walheim said during Atlantis' move to the launch pad May 31. "How can you beat that? An airplane on the side of a rocket. It's absolutely stunning.

"So I think we lose a little bit of grace, of beauty, and also a little bit of majesty. You can't watch that vehicle roll by without thinking what an amazing achievement America has, that America can build something like that, put people inside and sling them off this Earth into space. It's absolutely amazing."

Assuming an on-time liftoff, Ferguson will guide Atlantis to a docking at the space station's forward port at 11:09 a.m. Sunday. The next day, an Italian-built cargo module will be attached to the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module and the combined 10-member shuttle-station crew will begin a hectic week of work to move 8,640 pounds of equipment and supplies into the lab complex.

The supplies are critical to the space station program. Two companies, Space Exploration Technologies -- SpaceX -- and Orbital Sciences, are building unmanned cargo ships to take over from the shuttle after the fleet is retired with initial test flights expected later this year or early next.

Atlantis' mission was added to the shuttle manifest to deliver enough supplies to keep the station provisioned through 2012 as a hedge against development problems that might delay the commercial cargo ships.

"Some folks look at this flight and perhaps don't see the excitement because we don't have a piece of our assembly hardware going up," said Michael Suffredini, the space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"But we've got the (cargo module) as full as we've ever had it, we've got the middeck. All of these supplies are going to be the lifeline to help us extend the period of time we can go on orbit before our commercial providers start flying regularly to ISS. That's critical to us, to give them the time they need to make sure their vehicles are ready to go fly, finish their development and get their test fights behind them and then start servicing ISS.

"From our perspective, although it doesn't look very sexy, it's one of the most important fights that we've ever had come to ISS."

The crew of shuttle Atlantis (left to right): Rex Walheim, pilot Douglas Hurley, commander Christopher Ferguson, Sandra Magnus. (Credit: NASA)

With a reduced crew of four, only one spacewalk is planned during Atlantis' visit, a six-and-a-half-hour excursion by station flight engineers Ronald Garan and Michael Fossum. Their primary objectives are to move an experimental robotic refueling package from Atlantis to the station and to mount a failed ammonia coolant pump in the shuttle's cargo bay for return to Earth.

If Atlantis takes off on time Friday, NASA managers may extend the mission one day to give the crew more time to pack up the cargo module with no-longer-needed equipment and trash. But as of this writing, the astronauts plan to undock from the station around 2 a.m. on July 18. Landing back at the Kennedy Space Center is expected around 6:56 a.m. on July 20, the 42nd anniversary of Apollo 11's touchdown on the moon.


For tens of thousands of past and present shuttle workers, including more than 3,000 expecting layoffs July 22, the traditional "wheels stopped" call from Ferguson will signal the end of an era.

"After the wheels have stopped and the displays go blank and the orbiter is unpowered for the final time ... there will be a rush of emotion when we all finally realize that's it, that it's all over, the crowning jewel of our space program, the way we got back and forth from low-Earth orbit for 30 years ... we'll realize that's all over," Ferguson said. "That's going to take a little while to deal with it."

Atlantis' landing will come seven-and-a-half years after President George H. W. Bush, responding to the 2003 Columbia disaster, ordered NASA to complete the International Space Station and retire the space shuttle fleet by the end of the decade.

A cargo canister is lifted into a payload changeout room at pad 39A. (Credit: William Harwood/CBS News)

When all was said and done, the final two shuttle missions slipped into the first half of 2011 and a third flight, with Atlantis, was added to the manifest to deliver a final load of supplies to the space station.

The Bush administration's plan was to eliminate the costly shuttle program -- and the thousands of contractor jobs that made it so expensive -- and use the savings to help pay for a new program, building safer, lower-cost rockets needed to support the establishment of Antarctica-style bases on the moon by around 2020.

But Bush never fully funded his Constellation moon program -- he barely mentioned it after the initial 2004 announcement at NASA Headquarters -- and the Obama administration decided in 2009 that it was simply too expensive.

Writing off nearly $10 billion spent on initial design and development of the Constellation moon program rockets and infrastructure, President Obama settled on a controversial new plan that marked a drastic change of course for NASA.

The so-called "flexible path" approach calls for the near-term development of private-sector spaceships to ferry astronauts to and from the space station on a for-profit basis while NASA focuses on designing new, more affordable rockets and spacecraft for eventual voyages to nearby asteroids, the moons of Mars or even the red planet itself.

"By investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies, we have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities ... for future missions," Obama said during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in 2010. "And unlike the previous program, we are setting a course with specific and achievable milestones.

"Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."

But those flights are little more than long-range dreams at this point. The heavy lift rocket needed to boost such missions into deep space has not yet been designed and test flights are years away as are initial flights of commercial manned spacecraft intended to service the space station.

In the near term, for the next four to six years, U.S. astronauts and their international partners will be forced to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at about $60 million a seat, for trips to and from the International Space Station.

"Does it bother me? I think the transition could have taken place a little more gradually," Ferguson said of the Obama space policy. "I would have liked to have seen a little more openness and not have it occur so suddenly. Does that mean it's the wrong thing to do? I'm really not sure. We had alluded to, in the past, we're really taking a risk. We are. And with big risks come big rewards. This could turn out to be the savior of human spaceflight in America. I'm really not sure, only time will tell.

"I do think we are kind of hanging it out a little bit," he said. "But I'm optimistic about the future and in the interim, we have our Russian partners. They'll get us up and down, we're paying customers, and they're good to their word."


But reliance on NASA's former Cold War rival has been a particularly bitter pill to swallow for many at NASA, forced to retire the most sophisticated manned spacecraft ever built before a U.S. replacement is available. Equally devastating, in the eyes of many, is the loss of manned spaceflight experience as thousands of highly skilled aerospace jobs are eliminated.

"We are going to miss it," former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, architect of the Bush administration's moon program, said of the shuttle program. "I was, as administrator, supportive of and willing to retire the shuttle in favor of a new and better system that would take us back to the moon and even beyond, but I'm not willing to retire the shuttle in favor of nothing. That, to me, doesn't seem like good national policy."

In the near term, "we're going to have a reverse brain drain," he told CBS News. "It used to be that people came from other places and other industries to work in the space program because of what it meant and what it was. And as it goes away, we're going to lose those people because talented folks go where there are tough problems. And that's not going to be good for the country."
Pilot Douglas Hurley, left, in the shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center. Sandra Magnus sits directly behind the pilot with flight engineer Rex Walheim to her left. (Credit: NASA)

Commander Christopher Ferguson in a shuttle simulator. (Credit: NASA)
NASA's current administrator, former shuttle commander Charles Bolden, believes the new approach, unlike the Constellation moon program, is sustainable and the right path forward in an era of tight budgets and more limited horizons.

"Some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight," Bolden said in a recent speech. "As a former astronaut and the current NASA administrator, I want to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success -- and here at NASA, failure is not an option."

The man who made that last line famous, in the movie "Apollo 13" if not in reality, was Gene Kranz, the legendary fight director who helped guide Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969, who orchestrated the Apollo 13 rescue and who ran mission operations during the early years of the shuttle program.

"The challenge of space is not in building the space systems, it is in building the space team," Kranz told CBS News in an email exchange. "With the termination of shuttle operations the NASA and contractor work force that took a decade to build and mature is being destroyed. Now, with inept national and space leadership, we stand with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Our nation has surrendered the high ground that the NASA space team captured July 20, 1969."

Kranz's sentiments reflect a widely held belief among Apollo veterans that NASA's new marching orders are a step back. In an open letter to the president, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan said America is on the verge of giving up its leadership in space.

"For the United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be ´┐╝without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature," they wrote. "While the president's plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.

"Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the U.S. is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity. America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space. If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal."


As NASA's fortunes have waxed and waned, buffeted by political upheaval, an economic crisis and uncertain public support, the one constant has been the shuttle's looming retirement and the slow but steady elimination of the program's highly skilled workforce.

In 2006, about 14,000 contractors and 1,800 civil servants worked on the shuttle program, most of them in Florida, Texas and Alabama. Going into the Atlantis launch campaign, the contractor workforce had been reduced to 5,615. Half of the remaining employees will be laid off after landing.

"Right now, we're down to those required just for sustaining engineering and operation of the last flight, so it's about 5,500 contractor employees spread across Texas, Utah, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida," said shuttle Program Manager John Shannon. "And a little bit under 1,200 civil servants, so we're at about 6,700 total people working in the shuttle program.

"The big layoff is really right after the shuttle landing and then we will keep some people in Florida for down-mission processing. So on July 22, if we launch on July 8, there will be a significant loss, about 3,200 contractors. There are other layoffs in August for all of our prime contractors and the subs, so they will go into the transition-retirement, which is just the configuration of the vehicles and the dispositioning of hardware. That's under 1,000 people total. That's where we are right now and where we should be in a month and a half."

The reality of widespread layoffs has fueled a widely-held feeling of abandonment, if not betrayal, by the national's leadership among the dwindling shuttle work force. Launch Director Mike Leinbach summed up the feelings of many in comments to his team after a recent launch simulation.

"What I'm about to say would not be appropriate on launch day and this is our last chance to talk together," he said in a recording obtained by CBS News. "You know, the end of the shuttle program is a tough thing to swallow and we're all victims of poor policy out of Washington DC, both at the NASA level an the executive branch of the government. It affects all of us, it affects most of you severely. I'm embarrassed we don't have better guidance out of Washington DC.

"Throughout the history of the manned spaceflight program, we've always had another program to transition into -- from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, Apollo Soyuz Test Program to Skylab, and then to shuttle -- we always had something to transition into. And we had that (with Constellation) and it got canceled and now we don't have anything, and I'm embarrassed that we don't.

"As a senior NASA manager I would like to apologize to you all that we don't have that. So. There you are. I love you all, I wish you all the best, we will press on through this flow and this launch in the way we always do, we're going to play this game to the final out and then we'll be done. I just wish you all the best. Godspeed to you all."
Bolden, not surprisingly, disagrees.

"When I hear people say -- or listen to media reports -- that the final shuttle flight marks the end of U.S. human spaceflight, I have to say these folks must be living on another planet," he said in a speech at the National Press Club. "We are not ending human spaceflight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking the necessary and difficult steps today to ensure America's pre-eminence in human spaceflight for years to come.

"I spent 14 years at NASA before leaving and then returning to head the agency. Some of the people I respect most in the world are my fellow astronauts. Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. I'm not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch. And I'm not going to let it flounder because we pursued a path that we couldn't sustain."

He said NASA must "get out of the business of owning and operating low Earth orbit transportation systems and hand that off to the private sector." He said NASA will build a new heavy-lift rocket and eventually launch astronauts on voyages to the moon, near-Earth asteroids and, eventually, Mars.

"The debate is not if we will explore, but how we'll do it," he said. "The International Space Station is the centerpiece of our human spaceflight for the coming decade. Every research investigation and all of the systems that keep the ISS operational help us figure out how to explore farther from our planet and improve life here."

But under the current program, it's not yet clear when those missions might get underway or where they will go.

"There's an old saying, the difference between a dream and a goal is a schedule," Griffin said. "Mars will always be a dream, and a human outpost on the moon will always be a dream, anything beyond the space station will always be a dream unless we have a schedule. We have to adjust our schedules in response to the funding Congress actually appropriates. But to adjust a schedule is an entirely different thing from not having one at all."

Regardless of how NASA's long-range plans pan out, the shuttle's retirement heralds gut-wrenching near-term changes for thousands of men and women who have devoted their careers to the servicing and maintaining the most complex and powerful flying machines ever built.

"It's not just the folks at KSC we're losing," Ferguson told CBS News. "We're losing a lot of our close personal friends who have been involved in the shuttle program for decades here at the Johnson Space Center, a lot of good friends who even work in our office, we're going to be saying goodbye to a couple of weeks after wheels stop.

"Does it concern us that our vehicle's being processed by a lot of people who essentially have pink slips in their hands? You know, early on, I'd say there is a certain element there, you know, you want to make sure everybody is focused until the very last moment. But ... we've worked hand in hand with these folks, we've talked to them and I have never been more assured than I am right now that these folks are going to be focused and positively engaged until the very end."

As the Atlantis launch campaign has proceeded, space workers have marked a steady stream of "lasts" -- the last shuttle rollout to the launch pad, the last practice countdown, the last payload transfer -- as the final launch approaches.

On July 1, Ferguson, his crewmates strapped into a shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center for the program's final ascent training runs, working through make believe aborts and hardware failures. When the training session was over, simulation supervisor Lisa Martignetti thanked the crew, ascent flight director Richard Jones and the shuttle flight control team for a job well done.

Choking back tears, she added that her team had "over 200 years of training experience. Due to circumstances beyond our control, all of that experience may be walking out the door. Every one of us has gotten notice that we're being laid off in about six weeks. And the folks supporting the sim are really just a small subset of all the instructors being let go.

"The point of me telling you this is that given the circumstances, I really wanted to take an opportunity to tell everybody publicly just how proud I am of the training personnel involved in this mission. We've all known for months that we were getting laid off. It would have been really easy to get a little lackadaisical and maybe not put forth our best effort. We would have been justified to get angry or depressed or even bitter and because of that, maybe turn in an uninspired performance.

"While we have all probably had a little bit of those emotions over the last two months, not one person on either training team -- ever -- exhibited the slightest decrease in their performance," she said. "Every single person put forth their best effort every single day. They were professional, hard working, creative, engaged and gave a hundred percent to every sim. In my 22 years as an instructor, the last 12 of which were as a team leader, I don't remember ever being prouder of a training team.

"I spent nearly half my life here training crews and flight controllers and my heart is breaking now that it is over. But I wouldn't have traded one minute of it for any other job on the planet. It's been an amazing ride, and I'm so glad I got to play my part in it."

After thanking Martignetti, Jones took a moment to state the obvious:

"Emotions are running high, folks. I understand that. And we have to take it one day at a time, one minute at a time. And there's one final thing for at least this ascent team, and that is to come in on launch day, on the eighth, and give everything that we have. I know you guys are going to be able to put that first and foremost and I will be doing the same with you. So, let's walk out of here ... and do everything like we've done before. It's been an honor working with you."


NASA did not originally intend to launch Atlantis on an actual mission. Using the agency's final set of solid-fuel boosters and its last external tank, Atlantis was designated for stand-by duty as a "launch-on-need" rescue flight for the crew of the shuttle Endeavour, which launched in May.

This was in keeping with a post-Columbia decision to process the next shuttle in the launch sequence for a quick-response rescue mission if needed.

But as the end of the shuttle program approached, NASA managers decided an additional cargo flight would be good insurance against problems launching the new commercial cargo ships.

Atlantis flight engineer Rex Walheim is fitted for a Russian Soyuz pressure suit. If Atlantis cannot safely re-enter the atmosphere after the end of its mission, the crew will rotate home aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)
But there is no second shuttle to rescue Atlantis' crew if things go wrong after launch. So NASA planners came up with a plan to bring a four-person crew home aboard Russian Soyuz ferry craft during normal space station crew rotations. While it would take a full year for all four Atlantis astronauts to make it home in a rescue scenario, NASA and the Russians believe it could be safely done.

"Because we don't have a rescue vehicle we'll be coming home sort of in a line on the Soyuz, with Rex coming first and then Fergie and then me and Doug," Magnus said. "And so we will slowly become incorporated in the space station life style."

Custom Soyuz seat liners, needed to ease the shock of landing in the cramped Russian capsule, have been made for all four Atlantis astronauts. One of them -- Walheim's -- is stored in the Raffaello cargo module being launched aboard Atlantis. The other three are on standby in Russia and will be launched to the station aboard Progress supply ships if they are needed.

If the crew is stranded aboard the station, Walheim would return to Earth in September aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft after a 70-day stay in space, taking Garan's place. Garan, in turn, would extend his stay in orbit to 249 days and return to Earth in December.

Ferguson would be the next to return, taking Fossum's place aboard the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft to close out a 131-day stay in orbit. Fossum would return to Earth in April 2012 after an extended 304-day mission.

Magnus would come down next April aboard the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft after 273 days in space. Finally, Hurley would return to Earth aboard the Soyuz TMA-04M spacecraft next June after nearly a full year -- 335 days -- aloft.

"When this would happen, if this happens, Rex's (seat liner) would go immediately into the Soyuz of Ron Garan's, I believe, and then Fergie's would go where Mike Fossum's would go. So Mike and Ron would actually extend their stay in order to accommodate Rex and Fergie coming home. And then the next couple of Soyuzes would come up with an empty right seat and then Doug and I would slowly rotate down after those Soyuzes came down after their full six-month mission.

"As far as being ready for it, we've had some basic training on the space station, some of the big-picture emergency-type scenarios and some of the warning-type scenarios where we'd have to react quickly and expeditiously. But the plan is if we would have an extended stay on the space station we would get additional training on the station. After living there for a few weeks, you can very easily get in the routine of the everyday life and how you do operations. ... There's a very good plan in place and we'll be able to, I think sort of assimilate into space station fairly straight forwardly."

Added Ferguson: "This is a very low likelihood case. But the engineering (and) safety arm of NASA has done an extraordinarily thorough job of making sure we have a good plan to get home."

Coming up with a viable rescue plan in the absence of a second space shuttle was just one of the hurdles faced by NASA planners as momentum built to turn the stand-by launch-on-need mission into an actual flight. Another was coming up with refined procedures to get critical tasks done with fewer astronauts than usual. Atlantis' fight is the first since STS-6 in 1983 to launch with just four crew members.

"We've had a chance in training to go through all the various scenarios, contingency deorbits, different kinds of contingency undocking scenarios, and we have actually found procedures that assume you have five or six or seven crew members," Magnus said. "And so these have been very good exercises for us to go through and figure out, OK, so now we only have four people, how are we going to do it?

"The overall workload is pretty high, we've had to do a lot more cross training than normal for a shuttle crew. It actually feels like a station mission because you end up being a little bit more of a jack of all trades and not so much just a pipeline specialist. And that's been a lot of fun, because we get to dabble in each other's areas.

"So I think between the cross training and the fact that we've nosed out these scenarios where we need to be a little bit smarter, we're going to be in pretty good shape. But we are going to be working very hard. But it'll be a lot of fun at the same time, and very challenging."


The day after takeoff will be particularly busy as the astronauts use the shuttle's robot arm and a 50-foot-long extension to inspect Atlantis' reinforced carbon carbon nose cap and wing leading edge panels to make sure the parts of the heat shield that experience the most extreme heating came through launch in good condition.

The Atlantis astronauts take in the view atop the launch pad after a practice countdown. Left to right: commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Douglas Hurley, Sandra Magnus and flight engineer Rex Walheim. (Credit: NASA)
The crew also will check out their rendezvous tools and aids to make sure Atlantis is ready for docking with the space station the next day.

"We expect this inspection to take most of the day on flight day two," said shuttle Flight Director Kwatsi Alibaruho. "It'll be challenging to get through that inspection with a reduced crew complement. But this crew has practiced considerably to be able to develop a flow or a routine, if you will, to where even though they have fewer hands available in the shuttle they'll be able to get through these inspections in the timeframe that's been allotted."

The next day, Ferguson and Hurley will guide Atlantis through a carefully choreographed rendezvous sequence, overtaking the space station from behind and below.

As usual with post-Columbia missions, Ferguson will halt the approach 600 feet directly below the space station and perform a slow, computer-assisted back-flip maneuver, exposing heat shield tiles on the shuttle's belly to powerful telephoto lenses wielded by the lab crew. The digital images will be downlinked to analysts at mission control in Houston for a detailed assessment.

With the rendezvous pitch maneuver complete, Ferguson will guide Atlantis up to a point about 400 feet directly in front of the space station with the shuttle's nose facing deep space and its open payload bay facing the station's forward docking port.

From there, Ferguson plans to manually guide Atlantis to the program's 37th and final station docking.

Standing by to welcome the shuttle crew aboard will be Fossum, Garan, Expedition 28 commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev, Sergei Volkov and Satoshi Furukawa. After a mandatory safety briefing the combined crews will get to work, beginning initial cargo transfer operations. The shuttle's heat shield inspection boom will be removed by the station's robot arm and then handed off to Atlantis' Canadian-built arm to clear the way from removal of the Raffaello cargo module.

The next day -- flight day four -- Magnus and Hurley will use the station arm to pull Raffaello, also known as a multi-purpose logistics module, or MPLM, out of Atlantis' cargo bay so it can be attached to the Harmony module.

Working at a robotics work station inside the multi-window cupola compartment, Magnus and Hurley will "move in and grasp the MPLM and carefully extract it from the payload bay," said space station Flight Director Chris Edelen.

"They'll maneuver the module up to the node 2, or Harmony (module), the Earth-facing port there, they'll maneuver it into position so the common berthing mechanism latches just a few inches from the interface ... will grab the module and pull it in. Then the crew will drive 16 bolts to secure the MPLM and get an airtight seal.

"After the MPLM is firmly attached to the station, the crew will go into node 2 and open that lower Earth-facing hatch. Then they will connect electrical, data and power jumpers so they can activate the MPLM. They'll also install air ducting and then they'll open the hatch, go into Raffaello and begin the cargo transfer process."

The MPLM is tightly packed with equipment and supplies, including 798 pounds of crew supplies, 1,677 pounds of food and 4,538 pounds of equipment, spare parts and science gear. Another 2,000 pounds of hardware and supplies is packed on the shuttle's middeck.

With the supplies ferried aloft by Atlantis, along with gear delivered aboard unmanned Russian, Japanese and European Space Agency cargo ships, "we should be able to do nominal operations with research for six crew through 2012," Suffredini said.

"That was our goal with this flight," he added. "This flight gave us about six more months on orbit worth of supplies. That was critical to us. That sounds like it's not that much, but what it does is give you time to manage. If the shuttle didn't fly, we'd have to start talking today about reducing the amount of research we were going to do in order to make sure the only thing on the (Japanese and European cargo ships) were going to be supplies for the crew. So this gave us the added flexibility of letting us continue research, take care of the crew through 2012."


While the astronauts begin work to unload the MPLM, Garan and Fossum will be gearing up for a planned spacewalk on flight day five, the only EVA planned for Atlantis' mission. The primary goals of the spacewalk are to install a robotic refueling demonstration kit; to move a failed ammonia coolant system pump module back to Atlantis for return to Earth; and installation of a materials science space exposure experiment.

Garan and Fossum also will hook up a data cable needed by a robot arm attachment fixture that was mounted on the Russian Zarya module during a spacewalk by the shuttle Endeavour's crew in May.
The STS-135 mission patch.

"This will be the first shuttle mission where the EVA is performed by the space station crew," Edelen said. "The reason we did that was because with a small shuttle crew of four, we wanted to off load the training tasks on the shuttle crew and sort of level the load. So we took advantage of the EVA experience of Mike Fossum and Ron Garan. They've actually done three spacewalks together on previous shuttle missions (and they) were able to get up to speed very quickly on this EVA."

Returning the failed pump module is a high priority objective for NASA. The space station is equipped with two coolant loops that circulate ammonia through huge radiators to get rid of the heat generated by the space station's electrical systems. Last July 30, the pump in one coolant loop failed, forcing the crew to implement an emergency powerdown.

"I remember it because I was on console when it failed. It was one of those moments where on a quiet Saturday and the crew's off duty and getting ready to go to bed and everything's going real well and it all changed in a second when that pump module failed. All the caution and warnings started going off and the crew had to very quickly scramble to reconfigure the systems and power down some of the systems in order to keep the station limping along on one remaining cooling loop.

"That was a major failure in the history of the space station program, the first major failure that required (U.S.) spacewalks without a shuttle present to fix a problem."

Over the course of three spacewalks, the pump module was successfully replaced by a pre-positioned spare. But the coolant system is critical to the station's long-term health and engineers want to find out what went wrong in the pump that failed. After troubleshooting, engineers plan to repair the pump and re-launch it aboard a Japanese cargo ship.

After mounting the pump module in Atlantis' payload bay, Fossum and Garan plan to move an experimental robotic refueling apparatus from the shuttle to a storage platform used by the Canadian Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or SPDM, a robot arm extension also known as DEXTRE.

"We are taking up a payload, it's called the robotics refueling module, this is to demonstrate a capability for the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, which hasn't seen a whole lot of use on the International Space Station to date, but we hope to turn that all around with this payload," Ferguson said.

"I've kind of likened it to a Fisher-Price play toy for a robot. And I don't mean that in a negative sense, it is really an opportunity for the SPDM to get in there and use several different tools and prove the capability to do something extremely novel, and that is to refuel satellites in orbit that were never designed to be refueled.

"So the manipulator will actually go in and pick up special cutter tools and cut safety wire, it has a drill that can actually drill into a fuel tank so there's some very unique capabilities that will be demonstrated using this. What capability will robots provide to us in the future? To think about going out there and perhaps grappling a satellite that was never designed to be refueled ... and refill it and use it for an additional five or 10 years is a dramatic example of how robotics can modify what we're doing in space."

With the spacewalk behind then, the astronauts will spend the next four days unloading the shuttle's crew cabin and the MPLM, repacking it with more than 6,000 pounds of gear and trash for return to Earth.

Finally, if all goes well, the crew will finish its work on July 17, staging a final shuttle farewell ceremony before moving back aboard Atlantis. The next day, around 1:59 a.m., Atlantis will undock and pull directly away in front of the shuttle for a half-lap photo documentation fly around.

In all previous shuttle departures, the orbiter flew up above, directly behind and below the station, looping around the long axis of the outpost at right angles to the lab's solar power truss. For the shuttle's final departure, Hurley will pause directly in front of the station while the lab is reoriented so Atlantis can loop from one end of the power truss to the other at right angles to the long axis formed by the station's pressurized modules.

"She'll perform a modified fly around," Alibaruho said. "We're actually very excited about this. Normally, the shuttle will undock from the International Space Station and fly around the station taking photographs in the undocking orientation.

"What's going to happen this time, Atlantis will hold at about 600 feet while the station performs a 90-degree yaw maneuver. What this does for us is this allows us to present a side of the space station the shuttle does not normally get to see on undock and fly around, so the crew can take high-resolution engineering-quality photos of sections of the spacecraft that we have not seen before on fly arounds.

"This will enable us to evaluate other areas of the space station for micrometeoroid and orbital debris impacts as well as assess the overall health of those parts of the spacecraft. After that half lap fly around, Atlantis will sep and go on her merry way."

The next day, flight day 12, will be one of the crew's busiest as they pack up the shuttle, launch a small solar cell test satellite, check out Atlantis' re-entry systems, talk to reporters and rig the ship for re-entry and landing.

"Right after we undock, we're deploying the picosat, we have to get the cabin ready for return, we have to wind up some of the last-minute science we're doing, we have standard before-landing checks, it's an extremely busy day and there's no cushion in the timeline," Magnus said. "So we could probably use an extra pair of hands or two that day. The ground's going to help us out a lot and we'll get through it, but we're going to be very, very busy at a very, very high pace at the end of the mission."

Added Ferguson: "We have to turn the orbiter back into an airplane, we have to set the seats up, we have to run cooling lines, we have to pack everything away so it's not going to fall when we re-enter. So, there's our big challenge day followed closely by flight day two, which is (heat shield) inspection day, which we normally pull off with about six people."


Flying upside down and backward over the Indian Ocean, Ferguson and Hurley will fire Atlantis' twin orbital maneuvering system braking rockets around 6:02 a.m. on July 20, dropping the far side of the ship's orbit into the atmosphere to set up a final landing back at the Kennedy Space Center.

As the spaceplane drops to subsonic velocities and Ferguson takes over manual control 50,000 feet above the Florida spaceport, the shuttle's signature double sonic boom will rumble across the Space Coast for the last time. A few moments later, following a steep 18-to-21-degree glide slope, Hurley will deploy Atlantis' landing gear and Ferguson will guide the ship to a high-speed touchdown on NASA's 3-mile-long shuttle runway.

Hundreds of engineers, technicians, astronauts and NASA managers will be standing by to welcome Atlantis and its crew home and to "share the moment" as the shuttle program comes to an end after three decades.

"The landing task, you are hyper focused on getting Atlantis back safely," Hurley said. "But I'm really looking forward, after they pry all four of us out of the orbiter, to just get down and share that moment with the folks who have literally been here since the first orbiter showed up, to be on the runway with them ... and just kind of share those memories."

Added Magnus: "It's going to be very sad. I told Fergie, I'm probably going to be crying when we land just because it's just so sad!"
"The shuttle's given so much to the country," she said. "When you look at the different kinds of missions it can do, it built the space station, it's done science missions that ranged from taking the Spacelab up to the big radar missions we've done, it's done astronomy, it's done biological science, materials science and then it's done satellite deploy, repair and retrieve. It's an incredible legacy this vehicle has given us. And while we do have to retire it, it's still going to be very sad to see it go."

NASA already is in the process of "safing" the shuttles Discovery and Endeavour, which completed their final flights March 9 and June 1 respectively. Atlantis will soon join them for decommissioning and preparation for eventual museum duty.

Discovery, NASA's oldest orbiter, will be displayed near Washington at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Atlantis will remain at the Kennedy Space Center visitor's complex, while the Endeavour will be displayed at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Shannon said the shuttle program will come to an official end one month after Atlantis touches down. But it will take more than two years to tie up loose ends and disposition shuttle hardware.

"Will we be a hundred percent done with everything associated with the shuttle in two years? No, that would be not reasonable to expect," he said. "I think all of the big things will be done and then the smaller activities will just be handed over to individual centers where those resources are located for them to disposition. We'll concentrate over the next two years on things that are outside of the fences of the centers at contractor sites, making sure they're all squared away and we've dispositioned all the resources.

"So we're projecting probably about two years. (But) the shuttle program will end 30 days after wheels stopped on Atlantis. That will be the official end of the shuttle program."