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Final Four (left to right): Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus, Rex Walheim, and Chris Ferguson on the flight deck of Atlantis, just before leaving the International Space Station. (NASA)

The Last Shuttle Flight

On board Atlantis, the closing of an era.

The two mission specialist slots went to a couple of veterans: Rex Walheim, a former Air Force flight test engineer and head of the astronaut office’s spacewalking branch, and aerospace engineer Sandy Magnus, who in the summer of 2010 was detailed to NASA headquarters, working on future mission studies and hoping for another tour on the space station, having lived there for four months—and loved it—in 2008 and 2009. Training for the contingency mission meant giving up her place in line for another station assignment. But she told Whitson, “Use me where you need to use me.”

***

Less than a year later, on the morning of July 8, 2011, the four STS-135 astronauts lay on their backs on the flight deck of Atlantis, awaiting the launch. For the first time in 28 years, there were no astronauts sitting downstairs in the mid-deck.

At T-31 seconds, a voice came over the intercom talking about a failure, and a hold. The clock hadn’t stopped this late in the countdown for years. Ferguson turned to Hurley, in the seat to his right. “Did she say failure?” They looked at each other, and Ferguson grabbed his checklist. The launch controllers on the loop were using their own jargon, slinging acronyms the astronauts didn’t immediately recognize. “Even though the world thinks [the astronauts] know exactly what’s going on at all times with this vehicle, we don’t,” says Hurley. “So it took us a few seconds to figure out, Oh, they’re talking about the beanie cap,” a hood that sits atop the shuttle’s fuel tank and retracts just before launch.

The problem was minor, and in a minute or so, the count resumed. Recalling the incident now, Ferguson notes how efficiently the launch team assessed the situation, made their decision, and moved on, with only minutes left in a tight launch window. “That’s what 30 years of launching the same vehicle does for you,” he says. “You really understand a lot of little chinks in the armor.”

Even among the astronaut crews, there was institutional memory that helped them handle problems quickly. Shortly after liftoff, during the thunderous climb to orbit, a loud klaxon alarm sounded inside Atlantis, a warning that the cabin was leaking air. This particular scenario had never come up in training, and the astronauts began to make the mental switch from routine to emergency. Ferguson, though, had seen this happen before, on his first launch. As Atlantis ascended, its metal structure expanded—they called it “cabin stretch”—and the air inside the pressure vessel expanded too. To the sensors, it seemed like the air was getting thinner—a sign of a leak. From personal experience, Ferguson could assure the others it was harmless, an assessment the ground quickly confirmed. Two weeks later, during the landing, it would be Rex Walheim’s turn to calm his crewmates, when they heard a loud bang on the mid-deck below them. “Oh, that happened on my first flight too,” he told them. It was the toilet door slamming open as the shuttle hit atmospheric turbulence.

Once in orbit, the astronauts stowed their heavy orange launch suits, configured computers, and prepared Atlantis for orbital operations. This had always been a hectic time for shuttle crews, and on past flights, if a couple of the astronauts got space-sick, it was hard for even seven people to keep up with scheduled tasks. That was another benefit of flying only veterans. “Knowing full well that we didn’t have anybody who was going to be throwing up for the first three hours after we got to orbit was huge,” says Hurley.

After two days of playing orbital catch-up with the station, day 3 was docking day. Ferguson had steered a shuttle to the station before—patiently firing little thruster bursts with his hand controller, while keeping watch out the orbiter’s overhead and aft windows. It was slow work, and stressful. Rendezvous was “one of the times that the pucker factor is a little bit higher,” he says, “because you have to be in just the right spot, doing just the right things, or it will cost you an enormous amount of fuel, and embarrassment, to get back to where you really belong. There’s a lot of pressure to put the orbiter in just the right spot.” As Atlantis approached, the view out the window was even more beautiful than he’d remembered. The station, he says, is “the ultimate visual stimulation….an incredible, silvery-gold, living thing.” Atlantis docked as the two vehicles orbited 220 miles over the Pacific.

Waiting at the other end of the docking tunnel to greet the arrivals were Americans Mike Fossum and Ron Garan, Satoshi Furukawa of Japan, and Russians Andrei Borisenko, Aleksandr Samokutyayev, and Sergei Volkov. All had been living on the station for more than a month, and all would help—to varying degrees—unload the tons of supplies Atlantis brought.

Most of the cargo was packed inside a room-size cylindrical module—named Raffaello—that rested in the cargo bay of Atlantis. It held a year’s worth of food, clothes, water, spare parts, and supplies for future station astronauts, all carefully number-coded and packed in pallets or boxy, white fabric bags. Hurley and Magnus lifted the module with the station’s robot arm and attached it to a station docking port. Magnus, the loadmaster, was in charge of the move, which would go on for days.

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