On Dec. 9, 2011, NASA will witness the departure of the astronaut who served as commander for the final space shuttle mission STS-135. Chris Ferguson has announced his plans to retire from the space agency so that he can enter the private sector. With Ferguson’s departure, all of the commanders who flew the final three shuttle missions have left or will be departing NASA.
With no defined human space flight mission objectives in place and with the only ride to space currently being Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft many astronauts are leaving the agency for other prospects. The space agency is losing an astronaut at the rate of one astronaut every two months. As of Dec. 9 NASA will have 58 astronauts in its active roster.
Ferguson is a retired U.S. Navy captain – his command of Atlantis’ final flight marked his third trip into space. The 13-day mission was a resupply flight to the International Space Station and saw some 10,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts delivered to the orbiting outpost. With the final landing, conducted on July 21, 2011, Ferguson and his crew wrapped up the shuttle program’s 30 year history.
“Chris has been a great friend, a tremendous professional and an invaluable asset to the NASA team and the astronaut office,” said Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office. “His exceptional leadership helped ensure a perfect final flight of the space shuttle,
a fitting tribute to the thousands who made the program possible.”
Ferguson’s very first mission, STS-115, was also on Atlantis. He served as the pilot on this mission which took place in 2006 and delivered the P3 and P4 truss segments to the space station. His next shuttle flight was STS-126 on shuttle Endeavour, this mission saw water reclamation and habitation systems transported to the ISS (as well as conducting a crew swap out). Ferguson has over 40 days of space flight experience.
Ferguson joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1998. Upon his completion of initial astronaut training, he performed technical duties related to the shuttle’s main engines (SSMEs), the orbiter’s large, orange external tank, solid rocket boosters (SRBs) as well as software utilized on the shuttles. Before he was given the nod to be the commander of STS-135, Ferguson was the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center located in Houston, Texas.
“Chris has been a true leader at NASA,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, “not just as a commander of the space shuttle, but also as an exemplary civil servant, a distinguished Navy officer and a good friend. I am confident he will succeed in his next career as he brings his skill and talents to new endeavors.”
Following the majestic predawn touchdown of Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to close out the Space Shuttle Era, the final crew of Atlantis, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana thanked the Space Shuttle workforce for their dedication and hard work at an employee appreciation event held outside the processing hangers where the orbiters were prepared for the 135 shuttle missions flown by NASA over more than thirty years.
The four person crew of Atlantis on the STS-135 mission flew a special commemorative banner millions of miles to the International Space Station and back in honor of the thousands of workers who processed, launched and landed America’s five space shuttles. They unfurled the banner at the employee event at KSC in tribute to the shuttle workers.
“It’s great to be here in sunny Florida,” said STS 135 Commander Chris Ferguson. “Mike Leinbach [ the Space Shuttle Launch Director] said there was no way he’d let us land in California.”
“We want to express our gratitude on behalf of the astronaut office for everything you have done here at KSC, the safety you have built into the vehicles, the meticulous care that you take of the orbiter. As soon as we got on orbit, I was absolutely amazed that everything in Atlantis works so well. Everything looks beautiful on the inside.”
“I hope you all believe that every time we go, we take a little bit of every one of you with us,” Ferguson emphasized.
Atlantis was parked at the event as a backdrop for photo opportunities with the thousands of shuttle workers in attendance – along with over a hundred journalists including the Universe Today team of Alan Walters and Ken Kremer.
“Like Chris said, our one landing option was getting back to Florida and you all rather than anywhere else. It felt like being home again. Thank you for everything you have all done over the last 30+ years,” said Doug Hurley.
“We treated Atlantis with the utmost respect because we see firsthand how you process this vehicle and it is your baby,” said Rex Waldheim. “It is clean and well cared for. We did that for you because you all did such a great job preparing it for us.”
“You are such a special work force,” added Sandy Magnus. “There is no workforce like the space program workforce anywhere in the world. The pride, care, dedication and passion you take in your work is what makes it possible to have these very challenging missions and to succeed. You have to do everything right all of the time. And you DO. And you make it look easy!! Congratulations!”
The STS-135 crew then unfurled the colorful banner taken to the ISS aboard Atlantis to commemorate NASA’s Space Shuttle Era.
“We took this banner with us to space and this is our way of telling you that you guys rock ! We will present this to Mike Leinbach and Bob Cabana as just a small token of our appreciation for all the work you’ve done for us. Thank you for such a wonderful vehicle,” Ferguson summed up.
The crew then waved good bye to the thousands of shuttle workers, posed with Atlantis one last time and departed with their families for a homecoming celebration at their training base at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Atlantis was then towed a few hundred yards (meters) and came to rest inside the Orbiter Processing Facility to conclude her final spaceflight journey as the last of NASA’s flight worthy Space Shuttle Orbiters. She has began decommissioning activities due to last several months to prepare for her future retirement home at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) just a few miles (km) away.
Atlantis permanent new abode at KSCVC is set to open in 2013 where she will be genuinely displayed bearing scorch marks from reentry and as though “In Flight” with payload bays doors wide open for the general public to experience reality up close.
For some 1500 shuttle workers, the day’s proceedings were both joyous and bittersweet – as their last full day of employment and last chance to bask in the glow of the triumphant conclusion of the Shuttle Era.
I was extremely fortunate to be an eyewitness to history and one of the lucky few journalists permitted by NASA to follow along as Atlantis took her historic final journey back from wheels stop at Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility as a flight worthy orbiter.
A convoy of 25 specialized vehicles safe each orbiter after landing. Some four hours later, Atlantis was towed off the runway with a diesel powered tractor for about 2 miles along the tow way leading to the Orbiter Processing Facility which lies adjacent to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at KSC.
The STS-135 crew consisted of Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.
Check out my Towback Photo Album below, and prior album from wheels stop at the shuttle runway earlier in the day, here:
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 that closed out NASA’s three decade long Space Shuttle Era – in the wink of an eye it was all over.
Atlantis touched down almost invisibly on Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at 5:57 a.m. EDT and rolled to a stop moments later 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.
The finality of it all was at once thoroughly unbelievable that the shuttles would never fly again but utterly definitive at ‘wheel stop’ that we had witnessed the end of a historic and magnificent Era in human spaceflight.
Everyone present at the shuttle landing strip let out a loud cheer and thankful applause upon the safe conclusion to the 135th and last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program – since the first blastoff of Columbia on the STS-1 mission on April 12, 1981.
“Mission complete, Houston,” radioed Commander Ferguson. “After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It’s come to a final stop.”
But the sinking realization that America at that exact moment had simultaneously and voluntarily lost 100% of our indigenous national capability to send humans and cargo to the International Space Station is quite troubling to say the least.
The end of the shuttle program also marked the end of employment for nearly 2000 highly talented shuttle workers in the midst of a continuing tough economic situation all across the US. And thousand more pink slips are looming.
The primary goal of the STS-135 mission was to deliver more than 9,400 pounds of spare parts, food, water, science experiments and assorted gear to the International Space Station that were loaded aboard the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module – which functions as a ‘moving van’ in space.
All these supplies are “absolutely mandatory”, according to top NASA managers, for sustaining ISS operations for about one year into 2012. By that time NASA hopes that two US commercial space companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences – will have flown successful unmanned cargo flights to replace the capability completely lost with the premature retirement of NASA’s three orbiter fleet of winged Space Shuttles.
For the return trip to Earth, the 21-foot long, 15-foot diameter Raffaello brought back nearly 5,700 pounds of valuable science samples and unneeded trash to free up coveted storage space aboard the massive orbiting outpost.
“Although we got to take the ride,” said Commander Chris Ferguson on behalf of his crew,” we sure hope that everybody who has ever worked on, or touched, or looked at, or envied or admired a space shuttle was able to take just a little part of the journey with us.”
Upon departing Atlantis at the shuttle runway, Ferguson and the entire crew were welcomed back by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other senior officials.
“They have come to be known as the ‘final four.’ They did an absolutely incredible job,” said Bolden. “They made us very proud.”
“I really want to thank the space shuttle team and the Space Shuttle Program for just a tremendous effort today and throughout the entire history of the program. We gave them a tremendous challenge to fly and execute these missions and to finish strong and I can tell you today that the team accomplished every one of those objectives,” said Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier at a post landing briefing for reports at the Kennedy Space Center. “I’d also like to thank the nation for allowing us to have these thirty years to go use the shuttle system.”
“It is great to have Atlantis safely home after a tremendously successful mission — and home to stay,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center director.
Atlantis future retirement home will be constructed just a short distance away at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC).
Visitor Complex COO Bill Moore told me that he expects Atlantis will be put on permanent public display in 2013 after completion of a new 64,000 sq. ft exhibition building to house the orbiter. Atlantis will be displayed as though it were “In Flight.”
“I’m unbelievably proud to be here representing the Space Shuttle Program and the thousands of people across the country who do the work,” said Mike Moses, space shuttle launch integration manager. “Hearing the sonic booms as Atlantis came home for the last time really drove it home to me that this has been a heck of a program.”
“The workers out here and across the country in the Space Shuttle Program have dedicated their lives, their hearts and their souls to this program, and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” said Mike Leinbach, the space shuttle launch director at KSC.
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.
From one moment to the next America’s leadership in space position has evaporated – with the utilization of the most capable spaceship ever built and now operating at the peak of its performance yielding instead to reigning uncertainly as to what comes next given the dire outlook for the NASA budget in the foreseeable future.
A new US manned launch system – most likely in the form of a commercial “space taxi” – could perhaps lift off by mid-decade, but the task is formidable and the funding obstacles are sky high.
In the meantime, America is fully dependent on the Russians to loft Americans to space. All US astronauts headed to the ISS for the next three to five years at a minimum will be forced to hitch a ride aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.
Atlantis Final Landing Photos contributed by Alan Walters, Ken Kremer, Mike Deep, David Gonzales, John L. Salsbury and Chase Clark
Up next: Wheels Stop with Atlantis on the Shuttle Landing Strip and Towback to the Orbiter Processing Facility
In the weeks leading up to the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis, I had the distinct honor to speak on several occasions with Chris Ferguson, the Space Shuttle Commander of the STS-135 mission that will soon close out NASA’s Space Shuttle Era.
Chris talked to me about his childhood experiences that led him to “love science” and how he strongly believes in “giving back” to a community that enriched him so much – and eventually led him to his career as a space shuttle astronaut.
That passion for science and giving will result in an extraordinary and out of this world gift to the people of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, hometown to Chris Ferguson that he hopes will inspire kids to love science.
At that time Ferguson had already been a veteran space flyer with two trips to the International Space Station – but he not yet been named to command the last shuttle flight. Over 150 folks attended Ferguson’s talk – held in the presence of the marble statue of Benjamin Franklin. The statue is a US National Historic Landmark.
As a child, Chris attended classes from grade school to high school in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.
“I developed and cultivated a love of science, engineering and space in many childhood trips to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia,” Ferguson told me.
“I was always a science oriented kid growing up. I have an innate curiosity for how things work. The Franklin Institute fed my curiosity.”
“And it was some teachers I had at a young age in my high school in Philadelphia who made me want to understand more. And to understand the reason about why things work the way they do … And to understand why the physical laws that govern the Universe are the way they are.”
“The one thing I could never fathom well was understanding spaceflight. And the way to really understand something is to go do it,” said Chris Ferguson.
“What this is really about is going into space, living and working there and dragging the American public along with us. We need to constantly feed the machine for the folks who are curious and are on a quest to understand things they don’t understand and desire to wonder what’s beyond low Earth orbit and how you live in space for a long period of time.”
“The only way you feed that is by planting the seeds when they are young. You grow the big Oaks out of little acorns.”
“And you get the little acorns at places like the Franklin Institute and the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. That’s what did it for me,”
“I think you need to go back and you need to give back. So I’m looking forward to going back to the Franklin Institute !” said Ferguson
And when Chris does go back to the Franklin Institute later this year he will bring along a very very special gift – a piece of the Institute’s Fels Planetarium dome flew millions of miles to the space station and back aboard history’s very last Space Shuttle orbiter – Atlantis – that will ever take a star trek to the High Frontier.
And the project was Ferguson’s idea according to Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer at the Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute.
“Chris sent me an email asking if we (The Franklin Institute) would like to fly something on STS-135,” Pitts told me.
“I quickly agreed, found out what the criteria for launch would be and then pulled a team together to figure out what to send. It was decided to send a star-shaped piece of the original Fels Planetarium dome.
“The original dome was replaced in 2002 but I’d kept several large sections of the stainless steel panels and had a number of 5-pointed stars about 4″ across cut from the panels to mount and give as gifts to friends of the Fels. It weighs about 6 oz.”
“Since more than 10 million visitors have sat under that dome including several school students who would later become NASA astronauts, it seemed fitting to send one of these stars.”
“The piece presented some problems though. As a stainless steel piece, it has sharp edges and 5 very sharp points – both verboten by NASA and it is ever so slightly oversized. We fixed the worst problem by encasing the star – points edges and all – in a transparent acrylic ‘jewel box’ sandwich held closed with stainless steel screws.”
“We had about ten days from the first email to delivery date to him in Houston. When it returns to Earth, Ferguson has offered to bring it back to Philadelphia where we’ll put it on permanent display in the main Planetarium hallway. This will be the second time Franklin has flown an article with a native Philadelphian astronaut. Our last trip was with Jim Bagian on STS-40 in 1991.”
Chris is a humble, eloquent and down to earth guy and knows how lucky he is to be commanding the grand finale of the thirty year long shuttle program. And he is determined that he and his STS-135 crew of four do their very best to accomplish all their goals.
“I’m just proud to be a small part of it and am savoring the moment. We’re focused on the mission now and will have time to ponder this moment in history when it’s all over,” Ferguson concluded.
Space Shuttle Atlantis and her crew of 4 are scheduled to land at 5:56 a.m. on July 21, 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Friday July 8, 2011 was a significant historic day for NASA – one that will go down in history as the day of the final space shuttle launch. Here are a few of the historic “last” words spoken by the launch control team and the astronauts just before Atlantis headed off into history, as well as words from some other notable folks after the launch:
Launch director Mike Leinbach always has some final words to tell the astronauts awaiting on the launch pad that the launch team has all given a “go” for launch. Here’s his send-off:
“OK, Fergie, (commander Chris Ferguson) we’re starting to feel pretty good here on the ground about this one today, so on behalf of the greatest team in the world, good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of this true American icon. And so for the final time, Fergie, Doug, Sandy and Rex, good luck, Godspeed and have a little fun up there.”
In reply, Ferguson said, “Hey, thanks to you and your team, Mike and until the very end, you all made it look easy. The shuttle’s always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We’re not ending the journey today, Mike, we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. You and the thousands of men and women who gave their hearts, souls and their lives to the cause of exploration. Let’s light this fire one more time, Mike, and witness this nation at its best.”
Another very touching send-off was from the members of the close-out crew at the launchpad, who held up a series of signs in front of the camera in the white room that gave this message:
“On behalf of all who have designed and built…
Serviced & loaded… launched & controlled…
Operated & flown these magnificent space vehicles…
Thanks for 30 years with our nations’ space shuttles
God bless America”
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden released a video statement after the launch:
US President Barack Obama released his own statement after the launch. (Not the reference to going to Mars, which may be the most direct statement made by a president about the US space program intending to go to the Red Planet):
“Today, Americans across the country watched with pride as four of our fellow citizens blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in the Space Shuttle Atlantis, and America reached for the heavens once more.
Behind Atlantis and her crew of brave astronauts stand thousands of dedicated workers who have poured their hearts and souls into America’s Space Shuttle program over the past three decades. To them and all of NASA’s incredible workforce, I want to express my sincere gratitude. You helped our country lead the space age, and you continue to inspire us each day.
“Today’s launch may mark the final flight of the Space Shuttle, but it propels us into the next era of our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space. We’ll drive new advances in science and technology. We’ll enhance knowledge, education, innovation, and economic growth. And I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars. I know they are up to the challenge – and I plan to be around to see it.
Congratulations to Atlantis, her astronauts, and the people of America’s space program on a picture-perfect launch, and good luck on the rest of your mission to the International Space Station, and for a safe return home. I know the American people share my pride at what we have accomplished as a nation, and my excitement about the next chapter of our preeminence in space.”
Do you have any last words for the space shuttle program?
The four astronauts who will fly the Grand Finale of NASA’s space shuttle program arrived at the Florida launch site on Independence Day on a wave of T-38 training jets. The veteran crew flew into the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from Ellington Field in Houston, Texas and touched down at the shuttle landing strip at about 2:30 p.m. EDT.
Blast off of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission is slated for July 8 at 11.26 a.m. with Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson at the helm. He is joined by Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
Upon landing in the sweltering Florida heat, the astronauts were welcomed by Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach as well as other NASA/KSC officials and a large crowd of media. Many waved US flags in honor of the July 4th Independence Day holiday.
“I think I speak for the whole crew in that we are delighted to be here after a very arduous nine month training flow and we’re thrilled to finally be here in Florida for launch week,” said Ferguson. “This is a day that’s decidedly American, a day where we kind of reflect on our independence and all the wonderful things that we really have as part of being the United States of America. I think it’s wonderful you’ve all come out to join us.”
“We have a very event-filled mission ahead of us, we have 12 days, we’ll be very, very busy,” Ferguson added. “When it’s all over, we’ll be very proud to put the right-hand bookend on the space shuttle program.”
The quartet will spend the next few days completing final prelaunch training to prepare for their planned 12 day flight bound for the International Space Station.
The primary cargo is the Raffaello Multipurpose Logistics module built in Italy and jam packed with some five tons of spare parts, science gear, food, water, clothing and more that will be transferred to the station by the station and shuttle crews and are absolutely essential to keep the orbiting outpost operating over the next year.
About 2000 journalists and photographers are expected to cover Atlantis’s launch, the largest media gathering for a shuttle launch since the Return to Flight in 2005 – that’s about twice the media here for the last launch of Endeavour in April.
The countdown clock begins ticking at 1 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, July 5