by Dr. Ken Kremer
Barely discernable in the pre-dawn twilight and appearing as an eerie, ghost-like figure, Space Shuttle Atlantis and her four-person crew swiftly glided to a triumphant landing at the Kennedy Space Center to close out NASA’s storied three-decade-long Space Shuttle Era. In the wink of an eye, it was all over and the final shuttle chapter was written.
Atlantis touched down almost invisibly on Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at 5:57 a.m. EDT on July 21 and rolled to a stop to conclude the history making 13-day flight to the International Space Station and back. During the STS-135, mission Atlantis orbited the Earth 200 times and journeyed 5,284,862 miles.
STS-135 was the 135th and last shuttle mission. This was Atlantis 33rd flight and the 37th overall to the station. Atlantis was the last of NASA’s three shuttle orbiters to be retired. Her future retirement home will be a short distance away at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Chris Ferguson led the all veteran STS-135 crew of space flyers and will be recorded in history as the final Space Shuttle Commander for the Grand Finale of the shuttle program. This was Ferguson’s third shuttle flight and his second as Commander. Joining Ferguson was Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
I witnessed many key STS-135 processing events on the path to flight including the payload preparations, orbiter rollover from the Orbiter Processing Facility, Lift and Mate activities inside the VAB, the terminal countdown demonstration test (TCDT) crew training. Also, I saw the shuttle stack rollout to the launch pad and an extremely rare post-rollout up close tour of the shuttle stack on top of the Mobile Launch Platform including exquisite viewing from all over the launch pad gantry from top to bottom.
On June 28, NASA Shuttle managers announced a unanimous “GO” for liftoff and officially set July 8 as Atlantis launch date. They emphasized how absolutely crucial STS-135 is to the future well being and basic functioning of the $100 Billion International Space Station (ISS) and for sustaining ISS operations for about one year into 2012.
Tucked inside Atlantis cargo bay was the Italian- built “Raffaello” logistics module, which functions as a ‘moving van’ in space. The primary goal was to deliver “Raffaello” to the million pound orbiting outpost during the 13-day flight.
Raffaello was packed to the gills with more than 9,400 pounds of critical spare parts, food, water, crew provisions, gear, equipment and science experiments that will keep the station stocked and the crew fed for a year. About one third of the cargo is food; most of it provided by Russia. The secondary nestled payload was the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) which will demonstrate tools and techniques to repair and refuel satellites already in orbit.
On July 4, blastoff was finally at hand and the final shuttle crew flew into the Space Coast launch site on a wave of T-38 training jets from in Houston, Texas and touched down at the shuttle landing strip. The countdown clock began ticking backwards on July 5 ahead of a gloomy weather forecast.
In the final hours before launch. the crew departed crew quarters, lingered long to wave goodbye to the cheering crowd of thousands of gathered NASA employees, officials and media and then sped off to Pad 39A in the Astrovan to be strapped into their waiting seats of eternal adventure. I’ll never forget these stirring and exhilarating moments of Launch Day.
Space Shuttle Atlantis soared to space for one last history making time on July 8 at 11:29 a.m. EDT despite the dauntingly poor weather, low lying clouds and a last moment countdown glitch at T – 31 seconds that threatened to derail the launch.
Ultimately all coalesced and combined for an unpredictably tense shuttle drama that went down to the wire and put on a pulse pounding and spectacular sky show that we who were lucky to witness will remember forever.
About 750,000 hugely excited spectators jammed the Florida space coast beaches, roadways and hotels to witness a historic event that we will sadly never see again. That morning, no one expected to see a launch. Then, all of a sudden about 45 minutes before launch time the sky brightened and spirits rose. Miraculously, a small hole appeared in the sky above the Kennedy Space Center and headed directly for the launch pad as if on cue.
Just 29 seconds later as the crescendo of blazing fire, brimstone and crackling thunder mounted, Atlantis disappeared into the cloud deck on a huge plume of smoke and ash.
All objectives were accomplished during the flight. Shortly after the landing I was one of the very small group of media allowed to visit Atlantis at the runway. This was the first time NASA allowed media at the runway. We then watched the orbiter towed back to the processing hanger for the final time – a bittersweet moment.
Altogether Atlantis flew 33 missions, spent 307 days in space, orbited Earth 4,848 times and traveled 125,935,769 miles. Atlantis was the last of NASA three orbiters to be retired and closed out the Space Shuttle Era.
Wheels stop marked the dreaded end of American manned spaceflight from American soil for many years to come. No one can say with certainty how or when America will again launch humans to space. America is now fully dependent on the Russians to loft Americas to space and the ISS for the next three to five years. However, with the recent failure of the Russian Progress cargo carrier, there is no assured access to space from Russia either.
Check all my STS-135 features online at Universe Today:
Last Towback of a Flight Worthy Space Shuttle – Atlantis Post Touchdown Photo Album,
Wheels Stop ! With Awesome Atlantis on the Shuttle Runway
Bucks-Mont Astronomical Association (BMAA): Ottsville, PA, Oct 5, Wed. 8 PM, “7 Years of Mars Rovers” Website: http://www.bma2.org/Sdv.html
Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton: Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Nov 8, 8 PM “Atlantis, the End of America’s Shuttle Program and What is Beyond for NASA”. Website: http://www.princetonastronomy.org/
Washington Crossing State Park: Titusville NJ, Nov 12, Sat, 1 PM. “7 Years of Mars Rovers (in 3-D)”
Ken Kremer, Spaceflight magazine & Universe Today