Atlantis Crew Jets to Florida on Independence Day for Final Shuttle Blastoff

[/caption]

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.

Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson addresses the media about the STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer

“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

Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach greets Commander Ferguson. Credit: Ken Kremer
Doug Hurley and Sandy Magnus speak to reporters at the shuttle landing strip. Credit: Ken Kremer
STS-135 crew jets to Florida on T-38 training jets for planned July 8 blastoff. Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson flew this jet accompanied by Sandy Magnus. Credit: Ken Kremer
STS 135 crew arrives in Florida at the Shuttle Landing Facility. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my prior features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
NASA Sets July 8 for Mandatory Space Shuttle Grand Finale
Final Shuttle Voyagers Conduct Countdown Practice at Florida Launch Pad
Final Payload for Final Shuttle Flight Delivered to the Launch Pad
Last Ever Shuttle Journeys out to the Launch Pad; Photo Gallery
Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

Final Shuttle Voyagers Conduct Countdown Practice at Florida Launch Pad

[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The “Final Four” shuttle astronauts who will ever voyage to Earth orbit aboard a NASA Space Shuttle Orbiter jetted into the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) this week for their final simulated countdown training at the seaside Florida Launch Pad.

The all veteran crew for the STS-135 mission arrived at Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) on twin T-38 jets for four days of comprehensive flight training for what’s known as the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT). Along with all other shuttle flight related activities, it’s the very last time this training will ever occur.

The TCDT is part of the ritual of training for all shuttle crews that takes place in the last few weeks preceding a liftoff and that concludes with a full countdown dress rehearsal from inside Atlantis at the launch pad.

The last ever shuttle crew jets into KSC for TCDT training at KSC aboard T-38 jets. From left; Sandy Magnus, Doug Hurley, Commander Chris Ferguson and Rex Walheim. Credit: Ken Kremer

Chris Ferguson is leading the STS-135 mission and he will be recorded in history as the final Space Shuttle Commander. This will be Ferguson’s third shuttle flight and second one as Commander. Also aboard are Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

The quartet of space flyers are due to blast off aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 8 at 11:26 a.m. EDT for the “Grand Finale” of NASA’s thirty year old Space Shuttle Program. If all goes according to plan the end of the Shuttle Era is less than 1 month away.

It’s a bittersweet moment for everyone working on the shuttle program. Proud to be part of a magnificent adventure with the most complicated machine ever built by humans, but simultaneously sad that the program is ending well before its true flight time is up and with no concrete timetable to replace the trio of majestic spaceships.

“We are incredibly proud to represent this, the final flight,” said STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson after touchdown to dozens and dozens of journalists gathered at the shuttle landing strip to greet the astronauts.

“I speak on behalf of the crew, everyone in the astronaut office, and I’m sure everybody here at KSC in saying that we are just trying to savor the moment,” Ferguson added. “As our children and our children’s children ask us, we want to be able to say, ‘We remember when there was a space shuttle.”

The first order of business for Ferguson and Hurley was to practice shuttle landings in the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA), which is a modified Gulfstream II jet.

During the TCDT period, the crew engaged in mission briefings at the Launch Control Center which is the brain of shuttle launch operations, payload familiarization and training at the Space Station Processing Facility, fire suppression training, range safety and security briefings and emergency escape training in an M113 armored personnel carrier near Launch Pad 39A. Read more in my upcoming features.

On the last day of TCDT, the astronauts donned their orange launch and entry suits, journeyed to the pad in the Astrovan and were strapped to their assigned seated inside the orbiter exactly as will occur on launch day for a full dress rehearsal of the launch countdown.

STS-135 Crew at TCDT pad emengency training at Pad 39A. From left are Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The crew also met with over 100 reporters for a Q & A session at the base of Launch Pad 39A which was back dropped by a thrilling view of Shuttle Atlantis atop the Mobile Launch Platform and the gigantic Flame Duct which directs the rocket exhaust way from the shuttle stack during launch.

“We’re very honored to be in this position,” Ferguson said to reporters at the foot of the pad. “There are many people who could be here. When the dice fell our names were facing up. We consider ourselves fortunate and lucky.”

“I think each of us feels a little extra burden to make sure we put on the best possible face forward for the last go around of this. The crew’s very prepared and we’re going to do a fantastic job.”

“I don’t think that the full magnitude of the moment will really hit us until the wheels have stopped on the runway,” said Ferguson, reflecting on the significance of the grand finale of all shuttle missions. “I’m not sure words will really be able to capture for the crew and for the entire shuttle workforce just how much the shuttle program has meant to us for the last 30 years.”

“TDCT is very comprehensive, hands on and invaluable training at the place you’re going to do it,” said Hurley. “Everything is a just a little bit different when you are in the real vehicle so this is a great way to get you ready for launch day – when it counts!”

Tucked inside Atlantis cargo bay is the Italian- built “Raffaello” logistics module, the primary payload. Raffaello is loaded full with some five tons of critical spare parts, crew supplies and science experiments that will be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) during the 12 day flight.

The secondary payload is the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) which will demonstrate tools and techniques to refuel satellites in orbit.

The STS-135 crew arrive at KSC aboard a wave of T-38 jets for countdown, payload and emergency training. Credit: Ken Kremer

“Sandy Magnus is our ‘transfer czar’ in charge of emptying and filling Raffaello,” said Ferguson. Magnus is an ideal choice for the mission since she lived for months aboard the orbiting outpost and is familiar with its nook and crannies.

“We feel very honored to be on this flight and are very focused to perform it well,” said Magnus. “We are just the tip of the iceberg of a huge group of people who plan and get the hardware ready and prepare all our procedures.”

“I often think about how we will launch from the exact same launch pad that Apollo 11 launched at to go to the moon. It gives you goose bumps,” said Walheim.

Media with STS-135 astronuats at TCDT Q&A session at Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer

Watch the TDCT Launch Pad press conference here:

Read my prior features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Final Payload for Final Shuttle Flight Delivered to the Launch Pad
Last Ever Shuttle Journeys out to the Launch Pad; Photo Gallery
Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time

[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – For the last time in history, Atlantis and the shuttle program have literally gone vertical. Following the rollover of Atlantis into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the orbiter was attached to a massive crane and then hoisted and mated to the External Tank and twin Solid Rocket boosters that will power her 25th and last climb to orbit.

Myself and a small band of lucky photo journalists were privileged to witness this milestone on the way to blastoff of the STS-135 mission, the last one of the three decade long shuttle era. Check out a selection of my images in this photo album for Universe Today readers. I’ll post a few now and more later as Atlantis prepares to rollout to Launch Pad 39 A.

The STS-135 mission remains on target for liftoff on July 8 at about 11:40 a.m. EDT on a 12 day flight to deliver critical parts, science experiments, gear, crew supplies and provisions to the International Space Station (ISS).

Credit: Ken Kremer
Credit: Ken Kremer
Credit: Ken Kremer
Credit: Ken Kremer
Credit: Ken Kremer
Credit: Ken Kremer
Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my prior story about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The end of NASA’s shuttle era has begun as pre-launch preparations for the final shuttle flight by Space Shuttle Atlantis kicked into high gear. The STS-135 mission is set to launch on July 8 at about 11:40 a.m. EDT on a 12 day flight.

Shuttle Atlantis has been moved about a quarter of a mile from its pre-launch processing hanger – known as Orbiter Processing Facility-1 (OPF-1) – to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Check out our eyewitness photo album herein.

Atlantis rolls over from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, at right) processing hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at KSC for the STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer

The four person crew of STS-135 was on hand to meet and greet and thank the big crowd of NASA managers and shuttle workers who are preparing Atlantis for the final spaceflight of the Space Shuttle Program after three decades of flight.

Atlantis’ crew comprises of Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Douglas Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus.

Atlantis atop 78 wheeled transporter during rollover from OPF-1 to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

More than a hundred photo journalists representing media worldwide gathered to watch this historic event – known as “rollover”. I had a chance to briefly speak and shake hands with Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson and wish the crew good luck.

Under a gorgeous clear blue sky, Atlantis was hauled to the VAB – while bolted atop a 78 wheeled transporter – a key milestone setting a clear path to blastoff. Inside the VAB, the orbiter is mated to the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters before rolling out to Launch Pad 39 A in about two weeks.

Atlantis Up Close on the path to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

Midway through the road trip, Atlantis was parked for several hours to allow KSC employees to pose for photo opportunities with the flight ready orbiter for the last time.

The goal of Atlantis mission is to carry the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module (MPLM) to the International Space Station (ISS) and stock up the orbiting outpost with science equipment, crew supplies, food, water, logistics, gear and spare parts before the shuttles are retired forever at the prime of their lifetime.

Check back later for more photos

The all veteran STS-135 crew poses with Atlantis during rollover to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis heads to the VAB for the last time in preparation for the STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis approaches the VAB for the final time. Credit: Ken Kremer
The Space Shuttle Program will be prematurely stopped after the STS-135 flight.
Lack of NASA funding from the US Federal Government is causing the retirement of the Space Shuttles although the orbiters are operating at peak performance. Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer and Space Shuttle Atlantis on the road to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer