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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.

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“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.

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 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! He was like Scotty from Star Trek: The dilithium crystals, Captain—I’m doing my best! And he was!” Finally, the rangefinder got a lock, and they managed the flyaround without penetrating the bubble. But they never did get video—they couldn’t get the camera set up properly.

***

The Night before landing, Ferguson was alone on the flight deck. He had just signed off with mission control for the evening, the last such sign-off in space shuttle history. It was July 20, which happened to be the anniversary of the first lunar landing, and Ferguson, knowing the world might be listening, had said to the ground controllers: “Forty-two years ago today, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I consider myself fortunate that I was [alive] to actually remember the event. I think there are probably a lot of folks in that room who didn’t have that privilege. And I can only hope that day will come for them, too, someday.”

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