The Last Shuttle Flight

On board Atlantis, the closing of an era.

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)
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First, though, came a spacewalk on day 5 to remove a failed pump from the outside of the station and place it in Atlantis’ cargo bay to be brought home. There was also a refueling experiment to install, and other maintenance tasks. Normally a spacewalk during docked operations would fall to the shuttle mission specialists, Walheim and Magnus. But there hadn’t been time to fit a spacewalk in the training, so the NASA planners had come up with something new: The station astronauts—Garan and Fossum—would go outside, and Walheim would help direct them from inside the shuttle.

That had made for an unusual, hybrid style of training. In the months leading up to their mission, Walheim, Garan, and Fossum practiced together underwater, working out each foothold and turn of the wrench that would be needed in orbit. Then, the two station astronauts had to launch, so Walheim continued training after they left. Now, reunited in orbit, the three stayed up late the night before the spacewalk to go over the updated procedures.

When the spacewalkers stepped outside, Walheim, inside Atlantis, felt like he was right alongside them, following every move for six and a half hours. “I sat there with all my cameras set up and my procedures where they needed to be,” he says. “I was ready to go.” When he couldn’t see the spacewalkers out the windows, he watched on the monitors, looking vicariously through their helmet cameras.

With the spacewalk finished, the astronauts turned their full attention to the cargo transfer. For the next three days they unpacked the moving van, each person carrying a container to its designated spot on the station, then returning with something else—a bag of trash, a piece of equipment from an earlier expedition—to be packed in Raffaello for the trip home. It was like two lines of ants, one coming, one going, all day for three days. “We were a machine, man,” says Magnus. Fossum set up a couple of speakers and put on his favorite band—ZZ Top—so they’d have something to listen to as they floated past one another.

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.

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