Love of Science Drives Last Shuttle Commander – Chris Ferguson Brings Science Museum to Orbit

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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.

I first met Chris about two years ago in Philadelphia when he generously gave a well received presentation to our astronomy club, the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society – which meets at the Franklin Institute Science Museum and where I frequently lecture too.

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.

Fels Planetarium Dome Star from the Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia, PA
STS-135 Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson seeks to inspire kids to study science as a way to give back to his hometown community which inspired him to accomplish great goals and become a space shuttle astronaut. Ferguson brought this small piece of the Franklin Institute to the space station and back. The 5-pointed 4-inch star from the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium dome will be put on public display for the future enjoyment of millions of kids of all ages. Credit: The Franklin Institute Science Museum

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.”

STS-135 Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson during crew walk out to launch pad 39A on July 8. Credit: Ken Kremer

“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.

STS-135 crew at Q&A session with journalists at base of Launch Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center prior to last blastoff on July 8, 2011. From left; Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus; Pilot Doug Hurley and Commander Chris Ferguson. Credit: Ken Kremer

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.

STS-135 Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson (right) and Ken Kremer at emergency M-113 Tank Practice. Chris brought a special public gift for science aboard the last shuttle mission. Chris and Ken discuss our mutual love of science in the weeks before Atlantis July 8 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135:
Revolutionary Robotic Refueling Experiment Opens New Research Avenues at Space Station
Water Cannon Salute trumpets recovery of Last Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters – Photo Album
Shuttle Atlantis Soars to Space One Last time: Photo Album
Atlantis Unveiled for Historic Final Flight amidst Stormy Weather
Counting down to the Last Shuttle; Stormy weather projected
Atlantis Crew Jets to Florida on Independence Day for Final Shuttle Blastoff
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</a

Revolutionary Robotic Refueling Experiment Opens New Research Avenues at Space Station

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NASA’s new Robotic Refueling Experiment (RRM) is a revolutionary technology demonstration device – brought aloft by the final shuttle mission – that will test out and prove whether existing Earth orbiting spacecraft that were never intended to be serviced can be successfully refueled and repaired robotically.

The RRM payload is a state of the art path finding experiment that promises to open exciting new avenues of station science research that potentially could save and extend the lifetime of orbiting commercial, government and military satellites valued at billions of dollars.

RRM was delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) by the four person crew of STS-135, the shuttles grand finale. The project is a joint effort between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

During the very final spacewalk of the Space Shuttle Era, RRM was temporarily installed by US astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan onto a platform on the Dextre robot – the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator – which functions as a “handyman” in space.

Dextre is a two armed robot provided by CSA which is also a key component of the experiment because it enables the performance of repair and maintenance tasks at the heart of the RRM experiment.

RRM wire cutter experiment tool equipped with integral camera and LED lights on display at Kennedy Space Center Press Site: Credit: Ken Kremer

The washing machine sized unit weighs 500 pounds and was tucked inside the payload bay of Space Shuttle Atlantis and attached to the Lightweight Multipurpose Carrier (LMC) for the one way trip to space.

After Atlantis departs, RRM will be transferred to a permanent attach point on the stations truss and mounted on the Exterior Logistics Carrier 4 (ELC-4) of the million pound orbiting outpost.

RRM is NASA’s first ever such technology demonstration intended to test the feasibility of on orbit servicing operations on satellites that were not built to ever be worked upon and maintained after blasting off to space, according to Justin Cassidy, RRM Hardware Manager at the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The RRM box will simulate both the satellite to be serviced and the maintenance techniques required to perform both robotic refueling and repair work.

Full size Mock up of RRM box and experiment tool at KSC Press Site
Equipment Tool movements and manipulations by Dextre robot are simulated by NASA Goddard RRM manager Justin Cassidy. Credit: Ken Kremer

“The Dextre robot will manipulate four specially designed ‘Tools’ stored in bays inside the RRM,” said Cassidy in an interview at the Kennedy Space Center.

Using a high fidelity RRM mockup – nicknamed ‘Rosie’ – on display at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site, Cassidy spoke to me in detail about the RRM mission and objectives.

The four unique RRM tools have heritage in the Hubble Servicing Missions and were developed at NASA Goddard; The Wire Cutter and Blanket Manipulation Tool, The Multifunction Tool, the Safety Cap Removal Tool, and the Nozzle Tool.

“Dextre will grapple the tools and move them around with its ‘hands’ to perform refueling and maintenance tasks on activity boards and simulated satellite components mounted on the exterior walls of the RRM,” Cassidy told me. “The activity boards can be swapped in the future to carry out new experiments.”

High Fidelity Mock up of RRM experiment box at KSC Press Site. RRM was delivered to ISS during STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer

The RRM assignment marks the first use of Dextre beyond routine maintenance chores aboard the ISS. Indeed, the research project working with RRM is actually a new R & D function beyond what was originally planned and envisioned for Dextre, said Mathieu Caron, CSA Mission Operations manager.

Tasks planned for RRM include working on and manipulating caps, valves and screws of assorted shapes and sizes, cutting wires, adjusting thermal blankets and transferring fluids around fuel reservoirs. Ethanol will be used to simulate the flow of hydrazine fuel, said Cassidy.

“RRM will be operated by controllers on the ground at NASA Goddard, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and also in Canada by the Canadian Space Agency,” explained Cassidy.

Each RRM tool is equipped with integral cameras housing six built in LED’s to aid ground controllers precisely guide the tools.

“The RRM experiment phase to demonstrate robotic refueling and maintenance operations at the ISS is set to last two years and could continue for perhaps ten or more years,” said Cassidy.

President Obama asked the STS-135 crew about the RRM experiment during an Oval Office phone call from the White House to the ISS. Watch Obama’s phone call on YouTube

NASA hopes that the small investment in RRM technology demonstration will pave the way for advanced follow missions and private development of commercial robotic refueling and maintenance vehicles – in the not too distant future – that will reap billions of dollars in cost savings and dividends.

Artist concept of Robotic Refueling Mission experiment and Dextre robot (right) at work testing feasibility of satellite refueling at ISS. Credit: NASA
Demonstration of wire cutter tool snipping wires and multilayer insulation (MLI). Credit: Ken Kremer
RRM flight unit undergoes final pre-launch preparations inside the Space Station Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center. RRM is attached to the Lightweight Multipurpose Carrier (LMC) for eventual loading inside the shuttle payload bay. Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA Goddard RRM manager Justin Cassidy (right) and Ken Kremer manipulate RRM experiment tools. Credit: Chase Clark
Ken simulates manipulation of RRM experiment tool. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135:
Water Cannon Salute trumpets recovery of Last Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters – Photo Album
Shuttle Atlantis Soars to Space One Last time: Photo Album
Atlantis Unveiled for Historic Final Flight amidst Stormy Weather
Counting down to the Last Shuttle; Stormy weather projected
Atlantis Crew Jets to Florida on Independence Day for Final Shuttle Blastoff
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

Stripped Down Discovery rolls towards Retirement at Kennedy Space Center

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Space Shuttle Discovery was briefly on public display on Wednesday July 13 as she emerged from the hanger at the Kennedy Space Center where she has been undergoing processing for retirement since her final landing on the STS-133 mission.

It was a rather stark and sad moment because Discovery looked almost naked and downtrodden – and there was no doubt that she would never again fly majestically to space because huge parts of the orbiter were totally absent.

Discovery was stripped bare of her three main engines and orbital maneuvering pods at the rear and she had a giant hole in the front, just behind the nose, that was covered in see through plastic sheeting that formerly housed her now missing forward thrusters. Without these essential components, Discovery cannot move 1 nanometer.

When the Space Shuttle is forcibly retired in about a week, America will have no capability to launch astronauts into space and to the International Space Station for many many years to come.

Discovery was pulled a quarter mile from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to make room for Space Shuttle Atlantis when she returns next week from the STS-135 mission, according to Stephanie Stilson, the flow manager for Discovery, in an interview with Universe Today.

Stephanie Stilson,NASA KSC flow manager for Discovery. Credit: Ken Kremer

STS-135 is the 135th and final mission of NASA’s 30 year long Space Shuttle Program.

NASA now only has control of two of the three shuttle OPF’s since one OPF has been handed over to an unnamed client, Stilson said.

Stilson is leading the NASA team responsible for safing all three Space Shuttle Orbiters. “We are removing the hypergolic fuel and other toxic residues to prepare the orbiters for display in the museums where they will be permanently housed.”

“The safing work on Discovery should be complete by February 2012,” Stilson told me. “NASA plans to transport Discovery to her permanent home at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on April 12, 2012, which coincides with the anniversary of the first shuttle launch on April 12, 1981.”

Discovery Photo Album by Ken Kremer

Discovery emerges from OPF 2 processing hanger. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery exits OPF 2 minus main engines. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery moves from OPF 2 to VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery moves from OPF 2 to VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery on public display on Wednesday July 13. Credit: Ken Kremer
Below Discovery’s wing. Credit: Ken Kremer
Gaping hole in Discovery - minus forward reaction control thruster. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rear view of Discovery beside VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery entering the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery enters the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Viewing Discovery from the 5th Floor of the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery parked on the ground floor of the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

3-D Atlantis in Flight

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Time to grab your 3-D glasses (the red/cyan kind, please) and see a couple of 3-D views of Atlantis during her final flight. Above, she’s doing the belly flip, the RBAR pitch maneuver while approaching the station, and 3-D wizard Nathanial Burton-Bradford has 3-D-ified the view. Below is a 3-D look at Atlantis’ launch. Thanks to Nathanial for sharing his images with Universe Today. See his Flickr page for more!

Atlantis' final launch on July 8, 2011. Credit: NASA, 3-D by Nathanial Burton-Bradford. Click for larger view on Flickr.

Water Cannon Salute trumpets recovery of Last Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters – Photo Album

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NASA welcomed the very last spent Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) back into port with a special water cannon salute today (July 10) at Port Canaveral, Florida. The twin boosters parachuted back to Earth after powering Atlantis’ historic final ascent to orbit for the first two minutes following blastoff of the STS-135 mission from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on July 8.

After splashdown into the Atlantic Ocean, the boosters were towed back individually by two NASA naval vessels named Freedom Star and Liberty Star. See my photo album.

This beautiful photo op is free and open to the public – and has been since the beginning of the space shuttle program 30 years ago.

Freedom Star hauls in the very last spent Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster from the Atlantic Ocean to Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA Water Cannon Tribute to recovery of the Last Shuttle SRB’s
The twin SRB’s on the STS-135 mission powered the last Space Shuttle Orbiter to Space.
Credit: Ken Kremer

Atlantis’ right SRB was towed back first by Liberty Star and arrived at Port Canaveral jetty at about 12 p.m. EDT. Freedom Star came in at about 11 p.m.

Both NASA ships are typically manned by a crew numbering 24 team members. The ocean retrieval normally takes about two days.

Liberty Star tows last SRB’s past humongous Cruise Ships at Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer

A large crowd of onlookers – including many of us KSC press site photojournalists – were on hand to witness the water cannon blasting from the Elizabeth’s tug, owned by the Port Canaveral Port Authority, and trumpeting the procession through the port channel and eventually past several gigantic Cruise ships.

Freedom Star and last SRB pass through last drawbridge on the way to the Port Canaveral locks a few yards away. Credit: Ken Kremer
Liberty Star tows spent Solid Rocket Booster alongside throngs of spectators in pleasure boats. Credit: Ken Kremer

The boosters were temporarily moored at the North Turning Basin before being towed through the locks and then headed out to the AF refurbishment hanger at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Liberty Star enters Port Canaverl jetty with Atlantis right SRB in tow from Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Ken Kremer

The water cannon tribute was specially commissioned to honor the ocean retrieval of the last shuttle SRB’s that will ever fly.

“The future of Liberty Star and Freedom Star remains to be decided,” according to KSC spokesperson Allard Beutel in an interview. “The ships are available for use. SpaceX rented out one of the ships in an attempt to retrieve the first stage of the Falcon 9 during their two launches from Cape Canaveral.”

Atlantis right SRB towed into Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rear view of last SRB towing from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rear view of last SRB towing from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer
Hoards of spectators watch towing of Atlantis right SRB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Liberty Star tows SRB through the locks at Port Canaveral as the public freely watches this fantastic space show from a few feet away. Notice the 5000 pound frustrum on the deck which houses the parachutes at the top of the booster. Credit: Ken Kremer

Recovery team at work on spent Solid Rocket Booster at Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer

Lucky photojournalists covering the ocean retrieval of the very last Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster in history (Ken Kremer 3rd from right) as Atlantis’ left side SRB passes through the locks at Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Shuttle Atlantis Soars to Space One Last time: Photo Album
Atlantis Unveiled for Historic Final Flight amidst Stormy Weather
Counting down to the Last Shuttle; Stormy weather projected
Atlantis Crew Jets to Florida on Independence Day for Final Shuttle Blastoff
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

Shuttle Atlantis Soars to Space One Last time: Photo Album

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Space Shuttle Atlantis soared to space for one last history-making time today July 8 at 11:29 a.m. despite a gloomy weather forecast, low lying clouds and a last moment countdown glitch that threatened to derail the launch in the closing seconds – but ultimately all coalesced and combined for an unpredictably tense drama that went down to the wire and put on a heart pounding and spectacular sky show.

About 750,000 spectators jammed the Florida space coast beaches, roadways and motels to witness a historic event that we will never see again.

NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the high frontier and the International Space Station. Aboard Atlantis are 4 precious humans and some 9500 pounds of supplies. Credit: Ken Kremer
Send Ken your STS-135 launch photos to publish here

A hole in the sky miraculously appeared above the Kennedy Space Center and with just 58 seconds remaining in the launch window, NASA launch managers lit Atlantis engines and the shuttle stack thundered to life and vaulted off Launch Pad 39 A on 7 million pounds of thrust for NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission.

“What a truly awesome day today,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier at the STS-135 post launch news conference for reporters. ” We got to witness something really, really special and something really amazing. I’m really talking about the teams and the people who supported the launch that just occurred. What you saw is the finest launch team and shuttle preparation teams in the world.”

“It truly was an awesome, spectacular launch,” added Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana.

Atlantis just leaving Earth. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

“We’re really looking forward to a great mission. This is a very critical mission for station resupply. We’re going to do our best to try and stretch out an extra day,” said Space Shuttle Program Launch Integration Manager and chairman of the pre-mission Mission Management Team Mike Moses. “I think the shuttle program is ending exactly as it should. We’ve built the International Space Station, we’re stocking it up for the future, and ready to hand it off, and we finish really, really strong.”

“On behalf of the launch team, and all the thousands of people here at KSC, we’re just very, very proud that we finished strong from the launch perspective,” added Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach.

“A lot of us walked around and shook everybody’s hand,” Leinbach told reporters at the packed press conference. “It seemed like we didn’t want to leave, it was like the end of a party and you just don’t want to go, you just want to hang around a little bit longer and relish our friends and what we accomplished. It was very special, lots of pats on the back today.”

Universe Today is covering the Grand Finale of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. This report and photo album will be updated later.

Send Ken your STS-135 launch photos to publish here.

This shot of Atlantis' launch was taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today
T + 14 seconds into the last flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 8.
Spectacular view from the Kennedy Space Center Press Site at the world famous countdown clock.
Credit: Ken Kremer kenkremer.com

Atlantis Final Blastoff on July 8 on the Grand Finale of the Shuttle Era. Stormy morning weather broke and Atlantis punched through a small hole in the sky which miraculously appeared at just the right moment. Credit: Ken Kremer

Atlantis clears the launch tower at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Another view of Atlantis' final launch. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.
Atlantis thunders to life at Launch Pad 39 A at KSC on July 8. Credit: Ken Kremer
The final Space Shuttle Crew for STS 135
The crew was welcomed to boisterous applause greeted and given a rousing sendoff of cheers by hundreds of journalists and NASA employees and managers. From left: Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus, Pilot Doug Hurley Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson. Credit: Ken Kremer

Photos from Mike Deep and David Gonzales for Universe Today


Atlantis' launch is seen from above through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft. CREDIT: NASA Kennedy Twitter
Another shot from the roof of the VAB. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.
STS-135 Launch as seen from the NASA Causeway. Credit: Klaus Krueger

Read my features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Atlantis Unveiled for Historic Final Flight amidst Stormy Weather
Counting down to the Last Shuttle; Stormy weather projected
Atlantis Crew Jets to Florida on Independence Day for Final Shuttle Blastoff
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

Atlantis Unveiled for Historic Final Flight amidst Stormy Weather

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The last Space Shuttle in history that will blast off for space was unveiled today at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida amidst terrible weather. Heavy rain showers and thunderstorms are inundating the space center during prelaunch preparations for the blast off of Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Two lightning strikes occurred within about a third of a mile of Launch Pad 39 at 12:31 p.m. and 12:40 p.m. EDT. After engineering teams evaluated data from the strikes, NASA shuttle managers decided it was safe to proceed with launch preparations.

Following about a 40 minute delay, Atlantis was unveiled for liftoff after retraction of the massive rotating service structure which protects the orbiter from inclement weather and impacts from foreign object debris.

IMG_9164a_STS 135_Ken Kremer

The chances of favorable weather for launch of the STS-135 mission on Friday July 8 are just 30%, meaning 70% NO GO said Shuttle Weather officer Kathy Winters at a briefing for reporters today at KSC. Liftoff is targeted for 11:26 a.m. EDT.

NASA has a narrow window of three opportunities on July 8, 9 and 10 and must then stand down for nearly a week because the US Air Force has scheduled a Delta rocket launch on July 14. If the Air Force would agree to delay the Delta by few days, NASA could launch Atlantis on Monday or Tuesday in case for further launch delays.

Upwards of 750,000 spectators are expected.

Atlantis goal is deliver the Raffaello logistics module and the Robotic Refueling Mission to the ISS on a 12 day mission that will end the shuttle era.

Atlantis poised on for the final time on Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer
Closeup of the White Room leading to the crew cabin. Credit: Ken Kremer

Video of Lightning Strike near Shuttle Launch Pad

Counting down to the Last Shuttle; Stormy weather projected

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The countdown to NASA’s 135th and final shuttle launch began today (July 5) with no technical issues blocking liftoff at this time. But upwards of 750,000 spectators may be disappointed because the weather on launch day, July 8, is looking decidedly dicey. Storm weather and stormy seas lie ahead for NASA.

At today’s press briefing, Shuttle Weather Officer Kathy Winters projected that the chance of favorable weather is only 40% for Friday’s 11.26 a.m. liftoff of Atlantis because of the likely threat of rain at the Kennedy Space Center.

The 12 day STS-135 mission will loft about 9500 pounds of supplies and equipment that NASA shuttle managers state are absolutely “mandatory” in order to keep the International Space Station operating at full capacity for the next year.

“I wish I had a better weather briefing for you, but it does look like we are going to have some weather, at least potential for weather, in the area at launch time,” said Winters. “Right now, we’re going with a 60 percent chance of KSC weather prohibiting launch due to the potential for showers and isolated thunderstorms in the area.”

In the event of a one day delay to Saturday, the chances for favorable weather increases considerably to 60%. For a two day delay to July 10, the chances of acceptable weather climbs to 70%.

After July 10, the liftoff of the STS-135 mission would have to be delayed to July 16 because NASA would be forced to stand down shuttle launch operations in order to allow the Air Force to launch a military navigation satellite on July 14 from Cape Canaveral. That is unless the Air Force relents – out of consideration for the three quarters of a million folks expected to jam the Florida space coast beaches, highways and hotels – and offers NASA the opportunity to launch Atlantis for several days starting on July 11 – in case of a launch delay.

STS-135 crew at base of Launch Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center. From left; Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus; Pilot Doug Hurley and Commander Chris Ferguson. Credit: Ken Kremer

Space fans need to be patient and plan for undesired contingencies just like NASA by packing extra provisions like food, water and clothing and also should consider extended accommodations.

Clocks began ticking backwards today at 1p.m.EDT at the T Minus 43 hour mark towards the final blastoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis.

NASA Test Director Jeremy Graeber said at today’s briefing that Atlantis is ready to fly.

“Our teams here at the Kennedy Space Center and all the NASA centers across the country have been working for over a year to prepare Atlantis, the external tank our solid rocket boosters, the payload and all of our ground systems for the STS-135 mission,” Graeber stated. “All of our vehicle and ground systems are ready, the STS-135 crew, Atlantis and the launch team are all ready to proceed and we’re looking forward to a spectacular launch on Friday morning.”

STS-135 payload manager Joe Delai said the payloads and the Raffaello cargo carrier module are ready to go as well. “The primary objective of Atlantis is to resupply the ISS for one year. About 9500 pounds are going up. This is the largest payload in terms of volume.”

Delai said that Raffaello was specially modified to increase its cargo carrying capacity by several hundred pounds.

The STS-135 mission will bring NASA’s 30 year long shuttle program to a definite close and simultaneously mark the termination of the US capability to launch humans to space for at least several years.

Space Shuttle Atlantis perched on top of Pad 39A for the Grand Finale of the shuttle program.
Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA KSC shuttle managers brief media about the payload and launch status of the STS-135 mission to the International Space Station. From left: NASA Test Director Jeremy Graeber, Payload Mission Manager Joe Delai and Shuttle Weather Officer Kathy Winters

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

NASA Sets July 8 for Mandatory Space Shuttle Grand Finale

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NASA Shuttle managers met today (28 June) and officially set July 8 as the launch date for the Grand Finale of the shuttle program by Space Shuttle Atlantis. And the NASA officials also emphasized that the STS-135 mission is absolutely crucial to the future well being and functioning of the International Space Station (ISS).

“This flight is incredibly important,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations. “The cargo that is coming up on this flight is really mandatory for space station. This mission is critical from a resupply standpoint. We will stay on orbit in case of some small orbiter failures.”

Atlantis’ primary goal is to dock with the million pound orbiting outpost and deliver the “Raffaello” logistics module. Raffaello is packed to the gills with some 5 tons of critical spare parts, food, water, provisions and science equipment that will keep the station stocked and the crew fed for a year. About one third of the cargo is food.

The STS 135 mission will buy invaluable time to keep the station running and science experiments continuing full tilt after the shuttles are retired and until replacement cargo vehicles are brought online.

STS-135 crew meets with journalists at base of Launch Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center. From left; Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus; Pilot Doug Hurley and Commander Chris Ferguson. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA hopes that commercial providers – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences – will soon pick up the slack and fill the supply void created by prematurely shutting down the shuttles now, before the replacement vehicles are functioning and proven. If the private company’s spacecraft are further delayed, then the ISS crew size may have to be reduced from 6 to 3 and station science operations could be significantly curtailed.

NASA announced the unanimous “GO” for the July 8 liftoff following a day long Flight Readiness Review at the Kennedy Space Center involving senior shuttle managers from the NASA and contractor teams.

NASA managers announced “GO” for launch of Atlantis on July 8 at a briefing for reporters at KSC. From left: Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, Mike Moses, Space Shuttle Program launch integration manager, Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director. Credit: Chase Clark

“We had a very thorough review,” said Gerstenmaier. Shuttle managers reviewed the shuttle and launch pad systems, the risks associated with the flight as well as the payloads tucked inside the orbiter and an assortment of technical issues and problems that cropped up during the pre-launch processing.

The STS-135 crew comprises of just four astronauts, all veterans, led by Shuttle Commander Ferguson who is joined by Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. They are scheduled to fly back to Kennedy on Independence Day, Monday, July 4, for the final days of launch preparations.

Since there is no back up rescue shuttle, the shuttle astronauts would have to return to Earth aboard Russian Soyuz capsules in the event of an on orbit emergency.

“We’re really looking forward to achieving this mission, putting station where it needs to be and finishing strong with the shuttle program here with STS-135,” said Mike Moses, Space Shuttle Program launch integration manager.

Moses added that NASA very much wants to extend the planned 12 day flight by one more day to give the crew more time to transfer cargo back and forth between Raffaello and the station.

NASA especially wants to fully load Raffaello for the return trip with experiment samples and voluminous no longer needed items of trash to give the station crew additional work and storage space. The extension depends on consumables use and will be decided once on orbit. Without the shuttle, down mass capability will be severely limited until the private providers are ready.

Technicians at the pad worked successfully to swap out a faulty shuttle engine valve and take X-rays of reinforcing joints on the External Tank after the recent tanking test, thus enabling NASA to approve the July 8 launch date.

“Atlantis is in great shape out at the pad,” said Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director. “Team Atlantis is feeling good about the flow and the launch countdown and hope we’ll be able to get her off the ground on Friday the 8th as scheduled.”

“We expect between 500,000 and 750,000 visitors for the launch,” added Leinbach. “We have three launch attempts available on July 8, 9 and 10.”

The countdown clocks will start ticking backwards at 1 p.m. on July 5. STS-135 is the 135th and last shuttle mission.

This will be Atlantis’ 33rd flight and the 37th overall to the station.

Atlantis will be the last of NASA’s three shuttle orbiters to be retired.

Side view of Atlantis at Launch Pad 39A during pre-launch processing on June 28. Credit: Chase Clark

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