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

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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

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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

Final Payload for Final Shuttle Flight Delivered to the Launch Pad

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The cargo canister for NASA’s final space shuttle mission was delivered to the sea-side launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida and hoisted up the pads massive launch pad gantry early Friday (June 17).

NASA is targeting a July 8 blastoff of the STS-135 mission with Space Shuttle Atlantis and the last cargo a shuttle will ever haul to space. The 60 foot long cargo canister is the size of a shuttle payload bay.

The STS-135 mission is the very final flight of the three decade long Space Shuttle Era and is slated for liftoff at 11:26 a.m. EDT from Launch Pad 39A. The flight is scheduled to last 12 days and will be NASA’s 36th and last shuttle mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Atlantis will deliver the Italian- built “Raffaello” logistics module to the orbiting outpost.

Raffaello is loaded full with about 5 tons of critical space parts, crew supplies and experiments to sustain space station operations once the shuttles are retired at the conclusion of the STS-135 mission, according to Joe Delai, NASA’s Payload Processing Manager for the STS-135 mission.

Close up of top of shuttle Atlantis stack at Launch Pad 39 A
Astronauts will walk through the White Room at left to enter Atlantis crew cabin. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA technicians at the launch pad have closed the cocoon-like Rotating Service Structure (RSS) back around the orbiter to gain access to the vehicles payload bay. Atlantis’ payload bay doors will be opened Saturday night and the cargo will be installed into the shuttle’s cargo bay on Monday (June 20).

The secondary payload is dubbed the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) – a sort of “gas station in space” said Delai, who spoke to me at Pad 39A.

Joe Delai, NASA STS-135 Payload Processing manager, answers media queries at Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer

Pad workers were also busy on Saturday (June 18) with work to begin the collection of high resolution X-ray scans of Atlantis External Tank at certain support ribs on the shuttle facing side, according to Allard Beutel, a NASA KSC shuttle spokesman.

“The technicians will scan the tops and bottoms of 50 support beams, called stringers, to confirm that there are no issues following the tanking test conducted by NASA this week at the launch pad”, Beutel said.

The reinforcing stringers were installed after minute cracks were discovered during the propellant loading of 535,000 gallons of super cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen into the fuel tank during the initial launch attempt of the STS-133 mission in November 2010. “No problems are expected and this work is just being done as a precautionary measure.”

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits atop Launch Complex 39 A at Sunrise at the Kennedy Space Center
The last ever shuttle flight will blast off on July 8. Credit: Ken Kremer

During the tanking test, a potential fuel leak was discovered in a hydrogen fuel valve in Space Shuttle Main Engine No. 3, the right most engine.

“Technicians will spend the next week swapping out the engine valve with a new one and conduct tests to verify the fix solved the problem,” Buetel told me. “NASA expects the work can be completed with no delay to the July 8 launch.”

Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to blastoff on July 8 on NASA’s Final Shuttle Mission; STS-135. Credit: Ken Kremer

The engine leak would have been a show stopper and scrubbed the launch if this had been the real countdown on July 8, said Beutel – to the huge disappointment of the 500,000 to 750,000 folks expected to pack the Florida Space Coast.

The hydrogen valve replacement and X-Ray scans are being completed in parallel out at the pad.

The STS-135 crew of four veteran shuttle astronauts is led by Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson. Also aboard are Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

The crew will fly to into the Kennedy Space Center from Houston aboard their T-38 jets on Monday for several days of pre-launch training.

I will be covering the STS-135 launch for Universe Today on site at the KSC Press site, location of the world famous countdown clock.

Ken Kremer and Space Shuttle Atlantis on top of Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my prior features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
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

Last Ever Shuttle Journeys out to the Launch Pad; Photo Gallery

[/caption]KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The last shuttle that will ever blast to space has journeyed from the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building out to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in anticipation of liftoff on July 8 at 11:38 a.m.

It was a proud and bittersweet moment for all the shuttle team members from top to bottom as Space Shuttle Atlantis was rolling out overnight to Launch Pad 39 A, at the same time that Space Shuttle Endeavour was plunging into Earth’s atmosphere for the scorching reentry and landing back at the shuttle landing strip at KSC.

Thousands of NASA and contractor employees and their families had been given special passes to witness the dramatic nighttime sojourn of Atlantis in a morale booster event as she emerged from inside the VAB on her way to the pad for what will be the grand finale of the 30 year long Space Shuttle Program.

STS-135 Crew during final rollout of Shuttle Atlantis to Launch Pad 39 A at the Kennedy Space Center
STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson, left, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim talk to media as their vehicle, space shuttle Atlantis, makes its final journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A at KSC in Florida.
Credit: Chase Clark
I was privileged to watch and photograph Atlantis final journey from inside the VAB and the roof of the Launch Control Center (LCC). The LCC is the brain which commands and controls every aspect of Shuttle Launch operations.

The 12 day STS-135 mission will deliver the Raffaello logistic module to the International Space Station (ISS) which is loaded with critical spare parts, crew supplies and science gear that will be transferred to the massive orbiting outpost. Raffaello is a multipurpose logistics module built in Italy.

The STS-135 mission is a bonus for the shuttle program and was only officially added to the manifest in January 2011 as NASA sought funding from the Obama Administration and the US Congress.

The all veteran four person crew is led by Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson. He is joined by Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

Atlantis in High Bay 1 inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis final journey to Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis final journey to Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis mated to External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters inside the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis Ready for Final Journey to Launch Pad 39A for STS-135 flight. Credit: Ken Kremer
Close up of the Atlantis Crew cabin. Credit: Ken Kremer

Atlantis exits the VAB on the crawler pathway to Pad 39 A. Thousands of KSC employees witness Atlantis final journey to the shuttle launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer with Space Shuttle Atlantis inside VAB High Bay 1. Credit: Ken Kremer

Photos from Alan Walters for Universe Today: awaltersphoto.com

Photos from Mike Deep for Universe Today

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

Read my features about the final mission of Endeavour, STS 134, starting here
Era of Space Shuttle Endeavour Ends with June 1 landing at the Kennedy Space Center