The Last Shuttle Flight
On board Atlantis, the closing of an era.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, January 2013
(Page 3 of 4)
As loadmaster, Magnus held the checklist, and the others would come to her if they couldn’t figure out from the codes where something went. Having lived on the space station herself, she knew the system. “The station guys have to go find it later,” she says, “so the ground has to know that food container number 17 went to the JLP, rack number two, station C on that rack.”
She delegated to Hurley the job of unloading and loading Atlantis’ mid-deck. That included the monotonous task of filling bags of water (a byproduct of the shuttle’s fuel cells) to leave behind on the station. “Doug, bless his heart, got stuck on the mid-deck doing that—for days,” Magnus says. “He would start a [water] fill, then wander off into the station to bring something from the shuttle.”
Often, says Ferguson, on past shuttle flights, the commander had assumed a “passive oversight role, and generally didn’t work that hard. I probably was in that category on my first flight as commander.” But on STS-135, he had to pitch in too. At one point, he volunteered for unwrapping duty. For years, the astronauts had argued that the people who packed the cargo on the ground used way too much packing material. They even wrapped towels in foam. The leftover packaging created a major trash problem on the space station, but the packers had their reasons, and the astronaut office never could persuade them to stop.
So Ferguson spent a good part of the space shuttle’s historic final mission unwrapping a load of Russian-made urine receptacles, one by one, so the station crew wouldn’t have to. “They had bubble-wrapped them,” Magnus sighs. “Individually. Fergie spent an hour or two un-bubble-wrapping them, saying, ‘We are not leaving that bubble wrap behind.’ ”
For the busiest part of the move, NASA had arranged with the Russian Space Agency to get help from the three cosmonauts on the station. Normally, the Russian crew members would have stayed on their side of the station during the work day, running their own experiments and following a separate timeline. Now they joined the moving crew. “We had all three of them at one point, coming and going,” says Magnus.
As usual during a shuttle visit to the station, the two crews tried to have dinner together when the schedule allowed. One night it was in the station’s U.S. lab, another night they ate in the Russian module, and on day 7 they crowded into Atlantis’ mid-deck for an “All-American meal” of chicken, baked beans, and apple pie, in honor of the shuttle’s retirement.
“Sasha [Samokutyayev] just loved the space shuttle,” says Ferguson. “He and Andrei [Borisenko] were over there all the time. It was kind of this pilot-to-pilot thing—they just had so many questions: What does this do, what does that do? Everybody’s very proud about the airplane or spaceship they fly, and we really did enjoy showing it off.” The cosmonauts presented the astronauts with a patch commemorating the shuttle’s last visit to the station. “Knowing how difficult it was for them to bring things up in the Soyuz, I was really impressed,” says Ferguson.
As Atlantis’ time at the station wound down, and the crew started to relax about getting the cargo transferred on schedule, the ceremonial moments became more frequent, the mood a bit more reflective. The STS-135 astronauts understood all along that theirs would be a high-profile mission, with lots of time devoted to press interviews. These live public affairs “events” were done from the station, which was better set up for video than the shuttle mid-deck. To all the local drive-time radio personalities asking Ferguson about his favorite baseball team (the Phillies), or Magnus about her zero-G hairdo, or Hurley whether he would miss the shuttle, their answers were considered, even thoughtful, as if they hadn’t just heard another reporter ask the exact same questions five minutes earlier. They all thought it was important to share this last flight with the public.
An even stronger desire was to honor the NASA workers who had trained them, or had built the shuttles or serviced them—an entire culture that after 30 years was about to disappear. This had been powerfully apparent during training. More than once, after a busy day of simulations or meetings at one NASA center or another, people had stopped them to say how proud they were to have worked on the vehicles. Many were about to lose their jobs. “I talked to one guy who had been with Atlantis since it was built in Palmdale [California, in the early 1980s],” says Hurley. “There were a hundred stories like that. We talked to people who said ‘I started working here at Kennedy when I was 18, and worked on every flight’, people who had emotionally, mentally, and personally devoted their lives to the space shuttle program.”
Each night of the mission as they were signing off, Ferguson and his crewmates made an effort to thank the people in mission control—by name if possible. They recorded messages to be played later at retirement parties. One night a request came up to record something for the family of a long-time shuttle engineer who had just passed away. They found the time.
During the busy days on the station, there hadn’t been much chance for reflection, but now that the end was near, the shuttle crew felt it in different ways, and at different times. For Walheim, it happened while they were undocking. As the shuttle pulled away from the station, Ron Garan’s voice came over the radio: “Space shuttle Atlantis, departing for the last time.” At that point, says Walheim, “I was back from the window, toward the floor, kind of by myself, with nothing to do for a couple of seconds. It just kind of got me choked up.”
Now, with just the four of them back in the shuttle, there was one last major task to check off before coming home. NASA engineers wanted documentary pictures of the station taken from a vantage point never seen by other shuttles. So with Atlantis backed off to a safe distance, the station was commanded to turn 90 degrees. It rotated slowly; to the shuttle astronauts the motion was like watching the hour hand of a clock. Then Hurley flew a half lap around the station, up and over the solar arrays, so they could take pictures and video. The maneuver, said NASA flight directors, went “absolutely perfectly, by the numbers.” That’s what the press was told.