CollectSpace.com / Robert Z. Pearlman
NASA's final space shuttle crew took part in a press conference on Wednesday while standing behind their spacecraft, Atlantis, and Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A. From left to right are STS-135 mission specialists Rex Walheim, Sandra Magnus, pilot Doug Hurley and commander Chris Ferguson.
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updated 6/22/2011 4:11:18 PM ET 2011-06-22T20:11:18

Only two weeks remain until NASA launches its final space shuttle flight, and the four astronauts set to fly the mission plan to savor every moment.

"You want to appreciate the moment, you want to capture it for as many folks who are listening as there will be, I'm sure," the mission's commander, Chris Ferguson, told reporters Wednesday, while standing in front of their shuttle Atlantis at the seaside Launch Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Ferguson and his three crewmates — pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim — are in Florida for a launch dress rehearsal planned for Thursday.

"It is a pleasure to be here, especially right in front of the space shuttle," Walheim said. "It just gives you goose bumps thinking we're going to get to ride that in about two weeks.

The astronauts plan to launch aboard the shuttle Atlantis on July 8 for a 12-day trip that will cap off NASA's 30-year space shuttle program. The shuttle will deliver more than 8,000 pounds of spare parts and supplies to maintain the International Space Station after the reusable space planes are retired for good. NASA is retiring the shuttle program to make way for a new space exploration plan aimed at sending astronauts to asteroids, Mars or other deep-space targets.

No spacewalks are planned for the crew of the 135th and final shuttle mission, though two NASA astronauts currently living onboard the space station will perform a spacewalk during Atlantis' visit.

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"We feel very honored to be on this flight," Magnus said. "We've been very focused to make sure we perform it well in honor of all of the people who have been involved in not just this mission but all of the missions. We feel very, very strongly that we have to be prepared as possible to perform the mission to the extent that they're expecting of us. And I think when it's all done we can all celebrate together, not only just this mission but the whole program."

For the dress rehearsal tomorrow, officially called the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT), the astronauts will suit up in their orange launch-and-entry suits and head out to the launch pad just as they will on launch day. They and the NASA ground team will practice all the steps they must take to lift off on the shuttle.

In addition to preparing for their complicated mission, the crew must also weigh the responsibilities that come with being the last human beings to ride a space shuttle into orbit.

"I think each of us feels a little perhaps extra burden to make sure that we put on the best possible face forward for the last go around of this," Ferguson said. "And the crew is very prepared. We're going to go out and do a fantastic job. When it's all over at the very end, the enormity of it is going to hit us."

You can follow Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Explainer: Here's now NASA gets shuttle ready to fly

  • NASA / Jack Pfaller
    Bright xenon lights flare while space shuttle Atlantis rolls down a 3.4-mile stretch of river rocks, as the vehicle embarks on its historic final journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on May 31.

    With just one more mission remaining before the end of NASA’s storied 30-year space shuttle, the agency has shifted its focus to the final launch of Atlantis on July 8. But exactly how does NASA get a space shuttle ready to fly?

    Atlantis moved to its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 31, with final preparations under way for its planned liftoff on July 8 at 11:40 a.m. EDT.

    The shuttle rolled out to the launch pad just hours before its sister ship, NASA’s shuttle Endeavour, landed early on June 1 to wrap up its own final mission: a 16-day delivery flight to the International Space Station.

    Atlantis’ final voyage will come less than six weeks after Endeavour’s return. The shuttle will fly one last 12-day trip to the space station to deliver vital supplies.

    Here's a look at the major milestones that have been completed, and the remaining ones leading up to the final launch of NASA's space shuttle program:

    CollectSPACE /  Robert Pearlman
    The crew of STS-135, NASA's final mission for its space shuttle program, pose in front of their spacecraft, space shuttle Atlantis on May 17. From left to right are mission specialist Rex Walheim, commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialist Sandra Magnus.
  • Moving to the Vehicle Assembly Building

    NASA / Dimitri Gerondidakis
    In the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shuttle Atlantis is lifted by an overhead crane and moved into a high bay where it will be attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, which are already on the mobile launcher platform.

    On May 17, Atlantis made the trip from its processing hangar at the Kennedy Space Center to the 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), in a procedure that NASA calls "rollover."

    When Atlantis and its sister ships return home from space, ground teams perform inspections and maintenance on the shuttles in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF). Atlantis had been in the OPF since its most recent voyage – the STS-132 mission in May 2010.

    To get to the VAB, Atlantis traveled on a giant 18-wheel transporter platform. To mark the final shuttle missions, NASA has been inviting the thousands of workers who are part of the shuttle program to experience many of the major prelaunch milestones with their friends and families. During Atlantis' rollover, many NASA civil servants took photos alongside the orbiter they have worked on for decades.

    The four astronauts who will fly Atlantis on its STS-135 mission — commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim — were also present to take part in the occasion.

    Inside the VAB, Atlantis was lifted and attached to its massive external fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters.

  • Rolling out to the launch pad

    NASA / Jack Pfaller
    Space shuttle Atlantis, attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters atop a mobile launcher platform, slowly inches out of the Vehicle Assembly Building for the final time, on May 31.

    The next phase in the prelaunch preparations involves moving Atlantis from the VAB to its seaside launch pad. This process is known in NASA parlance as "rollout."

    Atlantis began rolling to the pad just after 8:30 p.m. EDT on May 31, mere hours before Endeavour touched down at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility.

    To make the 3.4-mile journey to Launch Pad 39A, the newly assembled shuttle sits atop NASA's Apollo-era crawler transporter and slowly and carefully inches to the pad. It typically takes about six hours for a shuttle to roll out to the launch pad.

    Brilliant xenon spotlights showered Atlantis in light as it rolled out of the VAB in front of record crowds. Atlantis' four astronauts were on hand at the event to address members of the media and enjoy the historic milestone.

    Shuttle program employees were once again invited to take part in the rollout, and NASA officials estimated that thousands of people showed up to mark the final time an orbiter makes its slow and majestic crawl to the pad.

    "We couldn't be more honored to be here and share it with them," pilot Doug Hurley told reporters during rollout, as Atlantis shone brightly behind him and his crewmates. "Obviously, the priority for us is to safely accomplish the STS-135 mission, but I think, almost as strong, is to just be able to share this experience with the folks who have worked on this vehicle for 30-plus years. We wouldn't be anywhere else but here tonight, so we're very honored to be here."

  • Extra tests for Atlantis' fuel tank

    NASA TV
    The space shuttle Discovery stood on the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center as a tanking test began before its final flight. The wires in this image lead to some of the 89 strain gauges and thermocouples installed on the external tank for the test.

    With Atlantis now secured to its launch pad, ground teams performed what is called a "tanking test" on Wednesday, to make sure the shuttle's external tank is safe and robust to fly.

    NASA decided to perform the test due to issues that were detected on the shuttle Discovery's external tank, which delayed the STS-133 mission for several months. Repairs and modifications were eventually made to Discovery's tank, and when the shuttle launched in late February, the external tank performed flawlessly, NASA officials said.

    Since Atlantis' external tank was constructed with the same materials and was manufactured during the same processing flow, engineers pre-emptively modified the tank the same way they did with Discovery's. The tanking test on June 15 will allow ground teams to collect data and assess how these modifications will hold up for launch.

    "It's very straight-forward," said launch director Mike Leinbach. "We fill it up, send the final inspection team out to the pad, they'll do their walk-down ... and then we'll get the 'go' for drain. That's it."

    A week's worth of X-ray photography will follow to assure that the metal struts withstood the extreme temperatures generated by 500,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen inside the tank.

    Engineers will take X-ray scans of the orbiter-facing side of a section called the intertank, which is the part of the external tank that caused troubles in the lead up to Discovery's launch.

    This provides detailed information about how the tank performs during the fueling process, and the data will help NASA officials assess the health of the modifications that were made to the intertank.

    "We're going to go ahead and do the tanking test to prove to ourselves that nothing unexpected happened, all our models are right, and we do understand how this (modification) performs," Mike Moses, chairman of the shuttle's mission management team, said in a news briefing on June 1. "The X-rays are really that double check to show we understand the stresses that got put into the system. Obviously we'll look at the data and if we're not happy with what we see, we'll take the next course of action. It really is that safety check of that Band-Aid that we put on the tank."

  • Launch rehearsal for astronauts

    NASA / Kim Shiflett
    Space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 crew members poses for a photo on the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida after arriving on March 29 to begin final launch training ahead of its last liftoff.

    During the week of  June 20, Ferguson, Hurley, Magnus and Walheim traveled from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT). This two-day event, which started June 23, acts as a practice run-through of the countdown and launch and is also the time when the astronauts receive emergency training at the Florida spaceport.

    This launch day practice run is the last major training exercise for the astronauts before their scheduled liftoff. In addition to countdown preparations and emergency training, the crew members also participate in a variety of media events during TCDT.

    The commander and pilot typically also have opportunities to practice landings at the Shuttle Landing Facility. The astronauts fly a modified Gulfstream aircraft that simulates the shuttle's approach and landing.

    For their emergency training, the crew reviews procedures for the launch tower escape system, which is a 1,200-foot-long "slidewire" that whisks the astronauts away from any danger at the pad. The crew members slide down in baskets to an emergency evacuation bunker nearby.

    During TCDT, the astronauts don their pressurized launch and entry suits and perform a complete run-through of activities on launch day to prepare themselves for the real thing.

  • Setting the official launch date

    Once all these other milestones are met, the STS-135 mission is primed for its Flight Readiness Review (FRR). There are two different FRR meetings – one among shuttle program managers, and then a separate executive-level meeting with top NASA officials.

    In these meetings, program managers, flight directors, mission managers and other top agency officials will discuss any issues that may have come up with the orbiter or its component parts, and assess the readiness of the vehicle and ground teams for launch. The shuttle program FRR is scheduled to take place on June 21.

    After Atlantis' executive-level FRR on June 28, NASA will call a press briefing and announce the official STS-135 launch date and time.

  • Arrival of the astronaut crew

    CollectSpace / Robert Z. Pearlman
    The space shuttle Discovery's final crew, the six astronauts of NASA's STS-133 mission, head to Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch on Feb. 24.

    NASA is currently targeting a July 8 launch for Atlantis' STS-135 mission, but an official launch date and time will be announced following the Flight Readiness Review.

    Once the launch date is set, the next major milestone is when the crew arrives at Kennedy Space Center for their scheduled liftoff.

    The astronauts typically arrive at KSC four days ahead of their launch, but NASA is planning to observe the July 4th holiday weekend, said Leinbach.

    "The weekend of July 4th, we have all three days off, so we're looking forward to that holiday," Leinbach said. "We'll be working weekends leading up to that July 4th weekend holiday, but it's different crews on different weekend days, depending on what the tasks are, so we're not going to be stressing one particular group at all."

    The astronauts fly from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to their Florida launch site in the agency's T-38 jets. These white, supersonic jets are used by astronauts to maintain their aerial skills between missions.

    Upon their arrival at KSC, the astronauts begin their final preparations before launch and enter into medical quarantine to ensure that they are healthy for their upcoming mission. After that, the next major milestone that awaits them is their historic liftoff into history on Atlantis' final mission into space.

    You can follow Space.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

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  1. Atlantis rising

    The space shuttle Atlantis makes its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, for the Defense Department's STS-51-J mission. At 176,413 pounds, Atlantis is nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, which was the heaviest shuttle. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 3 pounds less than the shuttle Endeavour (with the three main engines). Atlantis is also the last space shuttle to be retired.

    Other statistics:
    Length: 122.17 feet
    Height: 56.58 feet
    Wingspan: 78.06 feet (Phil Sandlin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First of its kind

    NASA's Magellan spacecraft is deployed from Atlantis' cargo bay in 1989 during the STS-30 mission. The Venus orbiter was the first interplanetary probe launched from a space shuttle. Later that year, Atlantis launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mission to Mir

    NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation during the STS-71 mission in June 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia's Mir space station for the first time. This historic photo of the linked spacecraft was taken from a Russian Soyuz capsule during a fly-around. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Here's looking at you

    The space shuttle Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in September 1996. This dramatic view, looking directly down onto the shuttle stack, was taken from the roof of the 525-foot-tall VAB. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Science in orbit

    Astronaut Shannon Lucid floats through the tunnel that connects Spacelab to Atlantis' cabin on Sept. 24, 1996. The Spacelab module rode in the shuttle's cargo bay and provided more space for scientific experiments. During this STS-79 mission, Atlantis linked up with Russia's Mir space station and brought Lucid back to Earth. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Lighting up the night

    Atlantis streaks into the early morning sky from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 15, 1997, as seen in this long-exposure photo taken from Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Fla. Atlantis' 10-day STS-84 mission featured a docking with Russia's Mir space station and a crew transfer. Atlantis docked with Mir seven times before the space station was deorbited in 2001. (Brian Cleary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Good as new

    The space shuttle Atlantis went back to its assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., for 10 months of refurbishment and upgrades in 1997-1998. This aerial photo shows Atlantis taking a piggyback ride back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 jet on Sept. 1, 1998. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Checking it out

    Atlantis' upgraded cockpit gets a once-over in 1999 from engineers and executives, including Roy Bridges, Kennedy Space Center's director (seated at bottom left), as well as Laural Patrick, Joann Morgan and George Selina. The upgrades made Atlantis the most modern orbiter in the shuttle fleet, with a control system as advanced as those found on commercial jet airliners and military aircraft. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tile tune-up

    Izeal Battle, a worker from United Space Alliance, repairs heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 30, 2004. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Back in business

    Atlantis' astronauts leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board the "Astrovan" for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B on Sept. 8, 2006, while gun-toting guards keep watch. A faulty fuel gauge grounded the shuttle for an extra day, but on Sept. 9 the shuttle lifted off on its STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. It marked Atlantis' first launch since 2002. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff!

    The space shuttle Atlantis rises on a pillar of cloud from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, 2006. Atlantis delivered structural components to the International Space Station during its STS-115 mission, resuming an orbital construction project that was stopped following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mission accomplished

    The clouds of Earth provide a backdrop for Atlantis shortly after its departure from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2006. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Night landing

    Atlantis lands amid darkness at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 21, 2006, bringing the STS-115 space station construction mission to a successful close. (Chris O'Meara / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kicking the tires

    Atlantis crew members Chris Ferguson and Dan Burbank look over their spaceship after landing at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 21, 2006. Ferguson was slated to be Atlantis' commander for NASA's final space shuttle mission. (Pierre Ducharme / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Blaze of glory

    The space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters light up for launch on June 8, 2007, beginning a flight to the International Space Station. This STS-117 mission marked the 250th orbital human spaceflight. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Watching the ascent

    NASA mission managers monitor Atlantis' liftoff from Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16, 2009. During the STS-129 mission, Atlantis delivered a payload platform and vital supplies to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Shuttle skywriting

    Nearly an hour after launch, contrails from the shuttle Atlantis' liftoff float above the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 8, 2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Last visit to Hubble

    Spacewalkers Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld work on the Hubble Space Telescope on May 16, 2009, during Atlantis' STS-125 mission. This marked the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Making a list

    Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino writes notes on a checklist during the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission on May 18, 2009. During this mission, Massimino became the first astronaut to send a Twitter update from orbit: "Launch was awesome!!" (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. First Family meets Atlantis

    NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia beneath the shuttle Atlantis during a tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2011. At the time, Atlantis was being prepared for its final flight. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Final flight

    Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. The shuttle fleet's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, brought supplies to the international space station. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Witnessing history

    Spectators watch the liftoff of Atlantis on its final mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Last rendezvous

    The space shuttle Atlantis docks with the International Space Station for the last time on July 10, 2011. The shuttle delivered more than four tons of food, clothes and other supplies to keep the space station going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned at least through the end of 2012. (NASA TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flight into history

    This poster pays tribute to the shuttle Atlantis' quarter-century of spaceflight: Graphic elements include the International Space Station and Russia's Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope (which Atlantis visited during the last servicing mission) and Venus and Jupiter (which were the destinations for probes launched from Atlantis). Threaded through the design are the mission patches for each of Atlantis' flights. A copy of this tribute poster hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Amy Lombardo / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre. 'After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It's come to a final stop,' Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied. (Nasa / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz, left, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land on July 21, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 21, 2011. The Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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