The Last Voyage of the NASA Space Shuttle: Looking Back on Atlantis’ Last Mission 10 Years Later

The NASA Finale spaceship mission, which was launched 10 years ago this week, has hardly taken place.

The Space Shuttle Mission Atlantis, called STS-135, launched on July 8, 2011. It was initially planned as an emergency flight and was not officially authorized in the NASA budget until January 2011, just six months before launch. This tight schedule caused a bit of a scramble for the Atlantis crew of four, not to mention the ground crews, but in the end it all went well, as the astronauts and some of their leaders recalled. ground crew during a celebration by NASA of their flight on Thursday (July 8).

STS-135 mission specialist Rex Walheim had volunteered to participate in “one of the last three flights,” he recalled during the NASA 10th anniversary event, which took place. was broadcast live on NASA TV. So imagine his disappointment when at first the 30-year program was supposed to end a mission earlier, with STS-134, and it wasn’t named on any flight manifesto.

“It’s kind of like standing in line for Space Mountain, and the line closes right before you get up there,” Walheim said, referring to the popular Disney World ride just an hour’s drive from. the place where the shuttles were launched and landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. near Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Pictures: STS-135, NASA’s last space shuttle mission

On call for space

But Walheim and his teammates were ready to go when the announcement was made, having been in training for three months before STS-135 was finally officially cleared. It was still a quick turnaround with a nine-month training cycle rather than the usual year or more, the mission pilot said. Doug hurley, but the crew felt a sense of camaraderie that brought them through this intense experience.

The teamwork culminated on their last night in orbit, when Hurley, Walheim, Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus and Commander Chris Ferguson all sat on the flight deck, silently drinking the sight of the Night earth below.

“You just have to figure it out, because you never know if you’re going to go back,” said Hurley. He eventually returned, flying alongside SpaceX Demo-2 pilot and fellow NASA astronaut Bob Behnken in May 2020 on the first crewed orbital flight from the United States since the final launch of Atlantis. The couple spent two months at International space station before going home.

NASA’s space shuttle program in pictures: a tribute

One last shuttle trip

STS-135 was a major supply operation for the International Space Station, an orbiting complex that relied on the Space Shuttle to bring in major parts. Among its milestones, the multipurpose logistics module Raffaello made its last trip to orbit in the cargo hold of the shuttle, filled to the brim with its maximum of 16 resupply racks to exchange experiences in space.

The shuttle’s empty middle deck – as there were only four crew members on STS-135 instead of the usual six or seven – also allowed the shuttle to bring home some extra garbage and unnecessary supplies from the space station, ahead of expected years of Russian three-person flights Soyuz spaceship and a fleet of smaller freighters with a lower capacity than the space shuttle.

The shuttle’s safe overnight landing on July 21, 2011 marked the end of the American-launched crewed missions in space for almost exactly nine years, until Hurley and Behnken launched on a SpaceX Crew Dragon on May 30, 2020. Now, with the 10th anniversary of the STS-135 mission underway, crew members and flight directors are using this step as a moment to reflect on the situation with the space program 10 years ago and its current leadership.

The space age is changing rapidly, especially when it comes to the types of people who travel to space. For example, Virgin Galactic plans to perform its fourth crewed suborbital space flight on Sunday July 11, with its founder Richard Branson and company staff on board. Blue Origin plans to launch the first crewed mission of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on July 20, with a crew including Mercury 13 Aviator Wally Funk and company founder Jeff Bezos (best known for founding Amazon). Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both plan to fly well-heeled space tourists in the years to come.

And crewed flights to the space station once again occur regularly from the United States. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is already operational, and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule could start carrying astronauts as early as next year. Crew Dragon is also reused for other things; the all-civilian Inspiration4 flight plan to launch a free-flight orbital mission later this year, while Axiom Space plans to use Crew Dragon for an astronaut’s first fully private visit to the ISS in 2022.

Meanwhile, NASA is planning its Artemis program that could put humans on the moon as early as 2024, if the Biden administration commits to meeting that Trump-era deadline. The new administration has yet to say when the first crewed Artemis landings will take place, although it continues to sign Artemis Accord agreements with other nations and conduct development of Artemis 1, an unmanned journey that could be launched for a moon tour at the end of 2021.

Magnus said this growing community of space travelers should remember the painful “lessons learned” NASA went through with the space shuttle. While not hinting at details, the space community generally refers to two tragic accidents that forever marked the shuttle program: the Challenger 1986 explosion and rupture of the shuttle Colombia on his return to Earth in 2003. These two incidents killed 14 people and forced major changes to the shuttle program.

NASA Space Shuttles: Where Are They Now?

“The lessons of our industry are very painful,” Magnus said. “We’re going to learn more as a community, as the community gets bigger and bigger, but I would just encourage people to keep an eye on the past, to inform their future actions.”

For the STS-135 crew, another solemn moment was leaving an American flag on the ISS for the next US-launched crew to bring back to Earth. (No one knew at the time that Hurley would be part of the two crews, given the nine-year gap between laying and picking up the flag.) The laying ceremonies included a call with then-President Barack Obama, and Ferguson said he was charged with an important task: not to forget the flag on camera.

Ferguson – now a commercial astronaut for Boeing – recalled his reaction when he received one last stern reminder just before launch into space that the flag had to be there: “I’m on it all.” But shuttle missions were hectic business, and a haze of spacewalks, science, and maintenance led Ferguson to successfully pass many items on the checklist – with the exception of one. important thing.

“Probably 10 days later, we’re meeting for this interview, and it’s President Obama and a few other distinguished people,” Ferguson said. The cameras started rolling, he continued, and “about 30 seconds after the start of this [call]I’m like, ‘My hands are behind my back, and the flag is in neither. How is it going to be? ‘ Everything went well, but it was one of my most interesting memories. “

Fortunately, at least the STS-135 crew were able to leave the space station in time on Atlantis, which is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center. If pre-departure inspections had revealed any issues with the shuttle heat shield tiles, Walheim said, the plan was to knock the crew members down one at a time on the Soyuz spacecraft over the following months. (These inspections became routine after it was determined that the tile damage sustained during the launch was responsible for the loss of Columbia.) Hurley would have been stuck up there the longest, he said, making of him the first American to go into space for about a year, long before Scott Kelly marked this milestone in 2014-15.

Less publicized at the time of STS-135’s flight was the huge network of ground personnel who supported the mission, with many of these people facing unemployment due to the end of the space shuttle program once processing the Atlantis landing completed.

“The team… stuck together and did the job well, knowing the end was approaching and some of them would be made redundant,” recalled retired launch director Michael Leinbach in a separate interview Tuesday on NASA TV. . “But they all got together and did the right thing for the good of the crew.”

Leinbach added that one of the safety lessons he tried to pass on to his team was how to ‘approve’ the elements of the mission during planning and operations meant taking responsibility, not just being of agreement with colleagues or managers.

“If everyone had this mindset of being first and foremost a responsible person for themselves, then I think it would spill over to the rest of the team and for the good of the program,” a- he said, saying he urged team members to speak up and have “open conversations” at all times to protect the astronauts.

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, who served as the launch and landing chief until retirement from the space shuttle program, joined Leinbach in the interview. (Blackwell-Thompson is also the launch director of Artemis 1.) Knowing that STS-135 was the last mission, she recalls, “you couldn’t quite bring yourself to leave” after the mission had landed safely.

She remembers returning to the orbiter’s processing facility a few hours after landing, with Atlantis being towed there from the runway. “It was a hot day, and every once in a while, as we walked with Atlantis, I kind of ducked under the wing for a little shade,” she said.

“I remember thinking how special it was, how much it was a memory that I would carry with me throughout my career… to know that it was really the last touchdown. It was a great program; it was a great race. Being able to push Atlantis back was just a really special thing, special to me. “

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.


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