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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.

Like many astronauts, Ferguson is frustrated that since 1969, space exploration has proceeded so slowly. During STS-135, he and his crewmates tried to explain, in practically every interview they did, that no, just because the shuttle was retiring, the space program wasn’t ending. But, he admits, “I don’t think the [political] waters have ever been muddier than they are now. And I think it’s going to take a couple of years for people to understand what we’re trying to do.”

What NASA is doing, in fact—in partnership with private companies—is building new spaceships, even though it’s uncertain where they’ll be sent. The crew of STS-135 is playing no small part in this new enterprise. Ferguson works for Boeing now, as the head of crew operations for the company’s commercial spacecraft program. Walheim is the astronaut office’s point person for the Orion capsule, which will be the first NASA vehicle to leave Earth orbit in more than 40 years. Hurley is the astronaut office liaison with other new commercial spaceship projects. Magnus left NASA in October to become executive director of an aerospace professional society.

But on the night of July 20, 2011, they were still a space shuttle crew, with just a few hours left in orbit. After Ferguson signed off with mission control, the other three joined him on the flight deck. Everything was packed away for reentry, and for the first time in 12 days, there was nothing left to do. For more than an hour, nearly a full orbit, they sat together with the lights off, talking quietly, basking in the moment, with Earth sparkling outside the windows. They saw thunderstorms flashing in the clouds below, the aurora shimmering as they passed over southern latitudes. “There’s so much your senses take in, the vividness of seeing the Earth, hearing the reaction jets fire,” says Hurley. “I remember feeling all was right with the world. You kind of want to bottle that up. Because if you felt like that every day, you’d be doing all right.”

The next morning, things happened fast. Shortly before 5 a.m. Florida time, Atlantis’ engines fired in the direction of its orbital motion to slow the vehicle and begin the descent to Earth. As often happens, the crew scrambled to get in their seats, and Walheim, the last to strap in, was still putting on his helmet as the fiery plasma light show started outside the windows. Sixty-eight minutes after initiating their de-orbit burn, they touched down in darkness at Cape Canaveral. A plaque now marks the spot on the runway where Atlantis’s wheels stopped.

While Ferguson, Hurley, and Walheim were busy shutting down the orbiter systems, they could hear the ground crews outside, starting to safe the vehicle, just as they’d done many times before. Magnus sat there in her lumpy orange suit, rolling her head from side to side, trying to get her neurovestibular system accustomed to gravity again. “I don’t think anyone heard me,” she recalls, “but I said something like, ‘Wow, it’s over.’ ”

Then they all stood up, piled into the Astrovan, and headed out to greet the crowd.

Tony Reichhardt is a senior editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian.

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