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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Inside the space station’s U.S. lab module, the four Atlantis astronauts should have been starting to assemble, but they weren’t. Space shuttle commander Chris Ferguson kept eyeing his watch. “Everybody get in here! We’ve gotta be ready!” he yelled. It was the eighth day of the 135th and final space shuttle mission, and President Obama was scheduled for a televised call in just five minutes.

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The shuttle astronauts and the six members of the station crew should have been milling in front of the camera, tucking in their shirts and straightening their hair. Instead, they were all still rushing around trying to finish their tasks.

At the last minute, the final person slipped into place—by now they were pros at this floating press conference formation—and the call went through. The president opened with a joke, then told the astronauts how proud he was of them and the shuttle workforce, asked about a robotics experiment, and said: “I also understand that Atlantis brought a unique American flag up to the station?”

Ferguson gave a little start and his eyes widened. You can actually see it on the video. The flag! There were thousands of tiny American flags tucked into every crevice of the shuttle, souvenirs to be given out later, but the one the president referred to was special. The Atlantis crew had brought it up to the station to leave behind, so that some day, years from now, the next American spacecraft to dock there would be able to retrieve it. The symbolism was important to Ferguson, and he had planned to hold up the flag during the presidential phone call. But in all the commotion he forgot, and he had to settle for describing it instead.

Hardly a big deal, and only a few insiders would even have noticed. Besides, everything had gone pretty much perfectly on this flight so far. With only five days left—five days in the entire 30-year history of the shuttle program—he was finally starting to relax. He was lucky to be here. They all were.

When the last shuttle astronauts began training in the summer of 2010, there was no guarantee they’d get a chance to fly. The mission had originally been STS-335, a “launch on need” flight that would wait on the ground to rescue the crew of STS-134—the last scheduled flight—in case that vehicle was unable to return from the station. Since the 2003 Columbia accident, NASA had required this safeguard for every launch; there was little likelihood that a rescue flight would be needed.

Behind the scenes, though, agency planners had long considered turning STS-335 into a real mission. With the shuttle retiring, new commercial companies like SpaceX were supposed to take over the job of supplying the station, but their launch schedules had been slipping badly, and NASA faced the possibility of a critical break in the logistics chain. One more shuttle flight—loaded with five tons of supplies—would buy some insurance.

In September 2009, Ferguson, as the new deputy chief of the astronaut office, had been asked to look at what it would take to pull off the additional supply mission from the perspective of crew training and safety. There were several concerns. First, this crew would have no rescue shuttle—NASA didn’t have the money and had no more usable external tanks. In the unlikely case that their orbiter, Atlantis, was disabled, the crew would have to stay on the station until smaller Russian Soyuz capsules could bring them home, one by one. The last person wouldn’t get back for more than a year.

After much study and an outside safety review, shuttle managers were satisfied that four people could pull off a last supply mission. Their training would have to be compressed, and their timeline would be packed. But it was doable. And the four astronauts could begin training before a final decision was made, because a rescue mission to the station had a lot in common with a supply mission; one big difference was the number of astronauts riding the shuttle home.

Before he started working on the plan that would turn into STS-135, says Ferguson, “I thought the last flight had come and gone.” Now, by good fortune, another mission had materialized. His boss, chief astronaut Peggy Whitson, decided that Ferguson, a former Navy test pilot, was the logical person to command the crew of STS-335/STS-135. The pilot chosen was Doug Hurley, a Marine aviator who had returned from his first spaceflight in July 2009, and so had been through training recently. Like Ferguson, Hurley had expected to be on one of the last shuttles; both had been disappointed to be bypassed.

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