One More for the Road
Above is astronaut Rex Walheim aboard Atlantis, just before re-entry on July 21, 2011, the last time any space shuttle would touch down at the Kennedy Space Center runway. Which also makes this the very last photo taken aboard the shuttle during its lifetime. You may think you've read all the end-of-career shuttle histories and sob-story interviews with the STS-135 crew, but you haven't gotten it all until you take a few minutesfor A&S senior editor Tony Reichhardt's look back on the final days, published in our January 2013 issue.
While most stories focused on the broad overview of the 30-year history, Reichhardt looks at this particular mission and all little tasks they performed -- something we all tended to ignore as shuttle missions became "routine." He details the crew hauling the huge inventory of supplies (and unwrapping it all piece by piece) to stock up the space station as best they could, working overtime as a tiny crew of four, performing spacewalks in teams that couldn't all practice on Earth together, and graciously taking time to give interview after interview. And stories like how that last task, taking photos of the station as the shuttle departed, didn't go quite as well as the public was told at the time.
Inside Atlantis, "to be honest, it was a little chaotic," says Walheim. Once the station turned from its normal orientation, the shuttle's autopilot system lost its lock on the reflectors attached to the station's exterior, which were needed to get range data. Hurley, who was piloting, and Ferguson, who was assisting him, couldn't tell exactly how far they were from the station. They were supposed to maintain a strict 600-foot distance to prevent the orbiter's thruster plume from hitting the solar arrays. Walheim grabbed a handheld laser rangefinder, like a highway cop's radar gun. He couldn't hit the reflectors either. Each time he failed to get a lock, there was a "nasty buzzing tone. Everybody can hear it, and you're thinking, Oh crap!" Ferguson started to worry they might drift inside the 600-foot bubble. He laughs about it now. "I think my voice raised up an octave or two: Rex, I need a mark now!"