The Storm Before the Calm

Atlantis at LC39A in preparation for the final launch of the shuttle program - STS-135. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. — The level of activity at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida has reached a fever-pitch as the shuttle program wraps up. Between the return to Earth of space shuttle Endeavour on her 25th and final mission and the rollout of shuttle Atlantis, set to conduct the final mission of the shuttle program ever, the last 24 hours have seen historic milestone after milestone take place within just hours of one another. 

Tuesday evening, starting at around 8 p.m. EDT, shuttle Atlantis rolled out to Launch Complex 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building. Throngs of workers that have worked for years, in some cases decades to see the iconic space shuttle ascend to orbit followed the final shuttle as it left for the launch pad. 

Shuttle Atlantis conducted the final rollout of the shuttle program beginning at 8 p.m. EDT. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

At 2:34 a.m. Endeavour and her crew of six returned safely to where they had launched from approximately two weeks earlier. The twin sonic booms that herald the shuttle’s return now a reminder that the program would be over – and soon. Endeavour was towed back to her hangar were she will be decommissioned in preparation for her retirement. Endeavour is slated to go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. 

Meanwhile, by early morning, Atlantis was being prepared for her July 8 launch day. Crews worked to get the shuttle ready for the final mission of a program that has lasted for 30 years. The skies matched the moods of many in and around KSC as rain poured down onto the orbiter. 

Bathed in spotlights, space shuttle Atlantis leaves for the launch pad. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Atlantis’ last mission will be a resupply flight to the International Space Station. Her crew will be the smallest in decades – only four. Commander Chris Ferguson and Pilot Doug Hurley will be joined by Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus. 

The size of the crew is governed by logistics. NASA wants to deliver the greatest amount of supplies possible so as to leave the space station as well provisioned as possible before the shuttles are retired. Also, there are no more External Tanks available. These massive, orange tanks provide the orbiters with fuel on the way to orbit. If in the unlikely case that Atlantis is damaged and cannot return home, her crew could ride the Russian Soyuz craft back home – a task that would have been made more difficult with the normal crew compliment of seven.

Overcast skies highlight the uncertain future of the U.S. human space flight program. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian
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