Riding a plume of fire, space shuttle Atlantis heads into the cloud-laden sky over Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA Photo by Tony Gray/Tom Farrar) › View Larger Image
Space shuttle Atlantis completed its last mission in July, but the mission continued on for its crew, who traveled the nation to thank people for their support of the space program and recap some of the mission's highlights.
On one such visit to Dryden Aug. 23, the STS-135 crew met an enthusiastic audience. The last four to fly a space shuttle were mission commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. Walheim was based at Edwards during the early part of his career and graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School.
"I personally feel like this is our second home – we've had more than 40 percent of the shuttles land out here," said Ferguson, who landed Endeavour at Edwards when mission STS-126 concluded on Nov. 30, 2008. "We came out here practically seasonally to practice in the Shuttle Training Aircraft," he added.
In fact, while the crewmembers were touring Dryden during their recent visit, they autographed the nose of NASA 944, a modified Gulfstream II Shuttle Training Aircraft. The aircraft is being retired and will eventually be on display at the center.
Ferguson also noted Dryden's aeronautics work and the prototype shuttle Enterprise ALT work in 1977, both of which made major contributions to the shuttle program in confirming the shuttle's aerodynamics and unpowered-landing capabilities.
He also recognized the first Enterprise crew of Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton, the first NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft crew of Fitz Fulton and Tom McMurtry, and the early shuttle crews.
"They were our heroes," Ferguson said. He then acknowledged Fullerton's wife Marie, who was in the audience.
The historical significance of being the final space shuttle crew was not lost on the STS-135 astronauts.
"We were extraordinarily honored to be part of this final mission. We tried to send it off, and we are so elated that we were able to put it to bed in the best way we knew – with a very successful mission," Ferguson said.
The STS-135 mission delivered a stockpile of supplies and parts to the International Space Station. During an eight-day docking with the ISS, more than 11,600 pounds of supplies and equipment were unloaded and more than 5,700 pounds of equipment and discards no longer needed on station were returned to Earth on Atlantis.
Another key mission element, and a task for which space shuttles were uniquely suited, was retrieving the nonfunctioning 1,400-pound cooling system pump module that was replaced after it stopped working in 2010. The pump was moved from temporary storage aboard the space station and placed in the shuttle's cargo bay. Returning the pump to Earth will allow engineers to determine what caused its failure and then refurbish it as a spare.
Magnus, who on a previous mission had worked on the ISS for more than four months, said the return was "extra special" because she didn't think that after her earlier, long-duration mission she would have an opportunity to return.
"It was really thrilling. Once we docked and the [ISS] hatch was opened, it was like I never left. It looked a little bigger than when I left it two years ago, but it felt like home. When you visit on the shuttle you have your head down doing the job, and you can't really take it in the way you can when you live there because it's your lifestyle. You relax there, you work there and you live there, and it's a completely different experience. After a few weeks, you feel like you've lived there forever.
"One thing that strikes us anew, no matter how many times you've docked with the space station, is what an amazing thing it is that we accomplished," she added, referring to the station's construction.
To give people an idea of the station's scale, Magnus described it as being "about a football field long and a football field wide." Constructing it was successful due to the capabilities of the space shuttles, which carried large structures to space in their payload bay.
Walheim juggled a number of science experiments on board the shuttle on STS-135. He also is a spacewalk expert. What impressed him the most was seeing the distinctive Edwards area from space and the view of the entire West Coast, especially considering he never thought he'd be seeing it from the vantage point of a space shuttle in space.
"You can see from Seattle to the Gulf of California," he said.
Walheim also noted that Dryden chief engineer Jim Smolka had taken Walheim on his first T-38 flight, when both worked at Edwards.
The STS-135 mission was not originally on the shuttle flight manifest, but Atlantis and its crew were readied as a contingency rescue mission for STS-134. Until Endeavour's safe landing at the end of STS-134 on June 1, it was not certain there would be one more flight, Hurley said. Once added to the manifest, STS-135 was limited to a four-member crew due to the potential difficulty of getting the astronauts to Earth safely in the event of an emergency. The STS-135 mission was the first mission since the shuttle's return to flight in 2005 during which there was no contingency shuttle on the pad poised for a rescue mission.
Though rescue by a Russian Soyuz was an option, a Soyuz would have been able to ferry just one astronaut at a time. Even with just four astronauts requiring rescue, planners estimated it would have taken a year to get all of the astronauts back to Earth.
"I drew the short straw, and would have stayed the longest," Walheim said.
The return to Earth was as spectacular as the mission itself, said Ferguson.
Coming in for a landing at Kennedy Space Center, "We all looked out the window," he said. "We had never seen that many people in one place. It was electric."
Atlantis was launched on its first space flight, STS 51-J, Oct. 3, 1985, with a classified payload for the U.S. Department of Defense. The vehicle carried four more DOD payloads on later missions.
Atlantis also launched many spacecraft from the payload bay on orbit, including planetary probes Magellan and Galileo and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. An array of on-board science experiments further enhanced space research in low Earth orbit.
Starting with STS-71, Atlantis pioneered the Shuttle-Mir missions, flying the first seven missions to dock with the Russian space station. The missions to Mir included the first on-orbit U.S. crew exchanges, now common on the ISS. On STS-79, the fourth docking mission, Atlantis ferried astronaut Shannon Lucid back to Earth after her record-setting 188 days in orbit aboard Mir.
Atlantis delivered several vital components to the ISS, including the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny, as well as the Joint Airlock Quest and multiple sections of the Integrated Truss structure that makes up the station's backbone.
Atlantis landed 13 times at Edwards, most recently on May 24, 2009.
Though the shuttles have now been retired, the astronauts stressed that the ISS mission continues. They also said they expect NASA astronauts will again travel to space in a new, American-built space vehicle in the years to come.