Final Shuttle Voyagers Conduct Countdown Practice at Florida Launch Pad

STS-135 crew at TCDT Q&A session 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


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

Space Shuttle Atlantis and cargo canister at Launch Pad 39A for Final Shuttle Flight. This view shows the delivery of the cargo canister – white rectangular box - with the payloads for the last shuttle mission; STS-135. The canister has been hoisted up the Rotating Service Structure, at right, for installation into the orbiters payload bay. Credit: Ken Kremer


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

Atlantis begins final Journey from the VAB to Launch Pad 39A for July 8 blastoff. Credit: Ken Kremer

[/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:

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

Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time

Credit: Ken Kremer


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

Final shuttle crew greets the media and shuttle workers during Atlantis rollover from the OPF-1 processing hanger to the VAB at KSC. From left: Rex Walheim Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley and Sandra Magnus. The all veteran crew will deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module (MPLM), science supplies, provisions and space parts to the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Ken Kremer


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

Picture Gallery: STS-132, Atlantis’ Last Mission

Another incredible shot of the ISS, with Atlantis' tail visible. Credit: NASA

Is this Atlantis’ last mission to space? STS-132 is the last scheduled flight for space shuttle Atlantis, and it remains to be seen whether any additional shuttle flights will be added. But the imagery from this mission is incredibly rich with wonderful images of the orbiter. So, while previous shuttle mission galleries we have here on Universe Today normally feature images from the EVAs, this gallery will mainly showcase images of Atlantis. And there are some really great photos — not sure whether the astronauts/photographers are consciously focusing on the shuttle or these images are just marvelously serendipitous. We’ll do a second gallery as more images come in from the later part of the mission. Enjoy!

Atlantis during the R-bar pitch maneuver as it approaches the ISS. Credit: NASA

Atlantis is backdropped by Earth as the shuttle approaches the International Space Station during STS-132 rendezvous and docking operations. Docking occurred at 9:28 a.m. (CDT) on May 16, 2010.

Cool view of Atlantis' back end, as it approaches the ISS. Credit: NASA

Just a very neat image of Atlantis, as seen from the ISS, backdropped by a cloudy area on Earth.

Another incredible shot of the ISS, with Atlantis' tail visible. Credit: NASA

Amazing shot of the Russian Segment behind Atlantis’s tail on FD 4 prior to docking.

Robotic arm ballet, with astronaut. Credit: NASA

Anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman works during the STS-132 mission’s first EVA. Dextre, a two-armed extension for the station’s robotic arm is also visible.

Fish eye view of Garrett Reisman working in the ISS's Cupola. Credit: NASA

This image might win the award for most futuristic looking image of the mission, and some have compared it to a scene from the movie “2001” — um, wait, is that considered a history movie now?

View of the ISS as Atlantis approaches on May 16, 2010. Credit: NASA
The Russian Mini Research Module, Rassvet, pulled from Atlantis' payload bay. Credit: NASA

In the grasp of the Canadarm2, the Russian-built Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM-1) is transferred from space shuttle Atlantis’ payload bay to be permanently attached to the Earth-facing port of the Zarya Functional Cargo Block (FGB) of the International Space Station.

Steve Bowen during the first EVA of STS-132. Credit: NASA

Obligatory image of a waving astronaut during an EVA. But it never gets old, so keep it up, guys!

Stunning view and colors. Credit: NASA
Another great view of Atlantis, her starboard wing area, over Earth. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman takes a self-portrait visor while participating in the first of three spacewalks. Credit: NASA
Atlantis' launch on May 14, 2010. Credit: NASA

So, How Would YOU Dress for Atlantis’ Last Scheduled Launch?

The STS-132 crew dressed for dinner. Credit: NASA


While most shuttle crews wear polo shirts or comfortable button-downs for their ceremonial pre-launch “last meal” on Earth (for a few days, anyway) the STS-132 crew decided to dress in a style befitting the occasion; the last-ever scheduled launch of space shuttle Atlantis. Very cool, but wow, I didn’t know they still made tuxedos like that. Looks like something out of the 1960’s! That’s Piers Sellers with the shades.

According to the Right Stuff blog, here’s what the crew ate:

Commander Ken Ham ate a Fly-Jay sandwich (pastrami, ham, turkey, lettuce, provolone cheese on whole wheat bread with spicy mustard), pickle and regular Lay’s potato chips.

Pilot Tony Antonelli ate shrimp cocktail, a medium rare filet steak and french fries.

Mission specialist 1 Garrett Reisman ate shrimp cocktail and a Swiss bacon cheeseburger with lettuce and ketchup.

Mission specialist 2 Mike Good ate shrimp cocktail, a sliced turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese on plain wheat toast and french fries.

Mission specialist 3 Steve Bowen ate tossed salad with Italian dressing, a medium rare filet steak and french fries.

Mission specialist 4 Piers Sellers ate shrimp cocktail, a green salad with oil and Balsamic vinegar, a medium rare filet steak and french fries.

The Grand Triumphs and Close Calls of Space Shuttle Atlantis

Atlantis sits on the pad on May 13, 2010, ready for the STS-132 mission. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.


The Atlantis space shuttle now sits poised for her final scheduled flight to space. On this mission, STS-132, Atlantis will bring a veteran six-man crew to the International Space Station to deliver a new Russian science module called Rassvet (Russian for “Dawn.”) Launch is currently set for today, May 14 at 2:20 p.m. EDT (1820 GMT) from Kennedy Space Center.

The Atlantis shuttle is the fourth of the five original shuttles and has pulled her weight in 32 successful launches – compared with 39 for Discovery, and 28 for Columbia, 25 for Endeavour and 10 for Challenger.

In looking back, this mainstay of the shuttle fleet has definitely had her share of highlights and successful missions. But, alarmingly, there have also been some close calls where this orbiter and her crews have teetered on the edge of disaster.

Atlantis (OV-104) was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in April 1985. Credit: NASA

Triumph: Atlantis’ first flight came on October 3, 1985. The STS-51-J flight for the Department of Defense brought a five-man military crew and two DoD communications satellites to space.

Close call: On Atlantis’ next flight, just a month later, STS-61-B, which was the second night launch in the shuttle program, one of the solid rocket boosters experienced primary O-ring erosion in both nozzle joints. There was blow-by of hot gases past the primary O-ring. Post-launch analysis brought the problem to NASA’s attention, but they ignored the issue. Just three months later, an O-ring leak on Challenger destroyed the vehicle and killed the seven-member crew.

Close call: On STS-27 in December, 1988, just the second mission after the Challenger accident, another foreboding of future disaster occurred. 85 seconds after launch, a piece of insulation on the tip of the shuttle’s right-side solid-fuel booster broke away and struck Atlantis’ right side. After the flight, NASA engineers said that while Atlantis had suffered more tile damage than usual, it “wasn’t a major concern.”

Damage to Atlantis' tiles was wide-spread. Credit: NASA, via Click for larger image.

But more than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged, and one tile was completely missing. The metal underneath was partially melted.

The crew knew about some of the damage because of routine heat shield inspections. However, because it was a classified Department of Defense mission, no pictures or television were being downlinked, even to Mission Control. Because there was limited communication between the crew and Houston, the problem was mostly overlooked by NASA officials and the crew actually feared for their lives.

Metal under a missing heat-shield tile was partially melted. Credit: NASA

“We had spent all that money and all that time rebuilding and revamping and we launched one successful mission, we [could have] lost the very next one,” said mission commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson in an article by Bill Harwood for “I think the Congress would have said OK, that’s the end guys, we just don’t need to do this again. I think that just would have been the end of it.”

But Atlantis returned her crew safely, even with the damaged tiles.

Space Shuttle Atlantis clears the tower as it launches on mission STS-46. Credit: NASA

Triumph: Atlantis became a satellite deploying machine! In May and October of 1989, two major interplanetary science missions were launched from Atlantis: Magellan to Venus and Galileo to Jupiter. Then in April 1991, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory was sent on its mission by an Atlantis crew. Several other satellites launched from Atlantis’ payload bay including more DoD satellites and a Tracking Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-5).

A view of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Space Station Mir during STS-71 as seen by the crew of Mir EO-19 in Soyuz TM-21.

Triumph: In June 1995, Atlantis became the first shuttle to dock with the Russian space station Mir. The STS-71 mission began the first phase of an astronaut-cosmonaut exchange program called the Shuttle – Mir program, which eventually led to the International Space Station program. Atlantis made six more trips to Mir out of nine total by the shuttles.

Atlantis docked at the International Space Station on September 12, 2006. Credit: NASA

Triumph: Atlantis was a major contributor to the construction of the ISS, and in February 2001 brought the Destiny Lab – one of the major component—to the station This current mission will be Atlantis’ 11th trip to the ISS.
Two shuttles on the pads in September 2008.Credit: NASA

Close call: Rescue ship: Following the Columbia accident, Atlantis was on standby for several rescue flights – called Launch On Need missions, including for the return to flight mission, STS-114. After the Columbia accident, it was recommended that rescue shuttles be on standby which would be mounted to rescue the crew of an orbiter if their vehicle was damaged and deemed unable to make a successful reentry. Atlantis will also be on standby as a LON – designated as STS-335 — for the last shuttle flight.

Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in 16 September 1996. This dramatic view looking directly down onto the shuttle stack atop the Mobile Launcher Platform (MLP) and crawler-transporter was taken from the VAB roof approximately 525 feet (160 meters) above the ground. In view are the Orbiter, orange External Tank and twin white Solid Rocket Boosters. Credit: NASA

Close call: Atlantis was almost decommissioned. NASA had planned to withdraw Atlantis from service in 2008 to have the shuttle completely overhauled. However, because of the final retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2010, it didn’t make economic sense to do the make-over — what is called the Orbiter Maintenance Down Period. But aging parts needed to be replaced and refurbished, and some critical parts were past their design lifetime. Originally, it was planned that Atlantis would be kept in near flight condition to be used as a parts hulk for Discovery and Endeavour. However, with the significant planned flight schedule up to 2010, NASA engineers found ways to keep Atlantis in flying condition, including a new way of pressurizing helium tanks to reduce the risk of possible rupture. Atlantis was then swapped for one flight of each Discovery and Endeavour.

* Astronauts Michael Good (left) and Mike Massimino repair Hubble's existing spectrograph during the mission's fourth spacewalk on May 17, 2009. Credit: NASA

Triumph: May 2009 4th Hubble servicing mission. Atlantis brought the crew of STS-125 to the Hubble Space Telescope for a final mission to refurbish and extend the lifetime of the noble and iconic space telescope. Atlantis’ crew made 5 space walks to do several painstaking repairs, as well as install the Cosmic Origins spectrograph, an instrument designed to allow Hubble to look farther into the universe in the ultraviolet light spectrum than ever before, and Wide Field Camera 3, which allows astronomers to better observe galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy. It was such a great mission, IMAX made a movie about it!

The knob wedged in Atlantis' window. Credit NASA, via

Close call: After the STS-125 mission, a work light knob was discovered jammed in the space between one of Atlantis’s front interior windows and the orbiter dashboard structure. The knob was believed to have entered the space during flight, when the pressurized Orbiter was expanded to its maximum size. Then, once back on Earth, the Orbiter contracted, jamming the knob in place. Engineers determined leaving the knob where it was would be unsafe for flight, and some options for removal (including window replacement) would have included a 6 month delay of Atlantis’s next mission (planned to be STS-129). Had the removal of the knob been unsuccessful, the worst-case scenario is that Atlantis could have been retired from flight, leaving Discovery and Endeavour to complete the manifest alone.

But On 29 June 2009, Atlantis was pressurised to 17 psi/120 kPa which forced the orbiter to expand slightly. The knob was then frozen with dry ice, and was successfully removed.

Atlantis on the launchpad on May 13, 2010, after RSS rollback. Image credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today

Will there be one – and maybe two more triumphs?

This current mission will be NASA’s 132nd space shuttle flight. But will it be Atlantis’ last? Since Atlantis will serve as the LON rescue shuttle and basically will be ready to fly, some shuttle proponents have said it should fly – why waste a space shuttle that is fully ready to launch to space? Others have proposed an extension of the shuttle program to shorten the gap until the NASA’s next human vehicle –whatever that may be – will be ready. Only time will tell if funds will be appropriated for an additional flight or program extension before the shuttle fleet becomes artifacts in museums.

But Atlantis has stood the test of time and for 25 years has provided many memorable moments.

Godspeed, Atlantis

Atlantis launches for STS-129 in Nov. 2009. Credit: NASA

This video aired on NASA TV today, about Atlantis’ legacy: