Image: Launch rehearsal
Roberto Gonzalez  /  Getty Images
The astronauts who will fly on NASA's last space shuttle mission strike a humorous pose during last month's dress rehearsal for launch. From left are Rex Walheim, Sandra Magnus, pilot Doug Hurley and commander Chris Ferguson, standing in front of Kennedy Space Center's Astrovan.
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updated 7/3/2011 5:42:14 PM ET 2011-07-03T21:42:14

America's longest spaceflying streak ends this week with the smallest crew in decades — three men and a woman who were in high school and college when the first space shuttle soared 30 years ago.

History will remember these final four as bookending an era that began with two pilots who boldly took a shuttle for a two-day spin in 1981 without even a test flight. That adventure blasted space wide open for women, minorities, scientists, schoolteachers, politicians, even a prince.

On Friday aboard Atlantis, this last crew will make NASA's 135th and final shuttle flight. It will be years before the United States sends its own spacecraft up again.

Commander Christopher Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus are delighting in their good luck.

"We're very honored to be in this position. There are many people who could be here," said Ferguson, a retired Navy captain. "When the dice fell, our names were facing up."

NASA managers were looking for space vets when they cobbled together this minimalist crew with seven spaceflights among them, to deliver one last shuttle load of supplies to the International Space Station.

They are an eloquent, colorful bunch in their 40s, accepting if not embracing the spotlight.

Ferguson is a drummer for an astronaut rock 'n' roll band. Hurley is nuts about NASCAR; his cousin is married to crew chief Greg Zipadelli. Walheim is a former shuttle flight controller; his graphic designer wife creates the mission patch every time he flies, always on Atlantis. Magnus is arguably the first out-of-this-world chef: She whipped up Christmas cookies and Super Bowl salsa aboard the space station in late 2008 and early 2009, using — as all good chefs — ingredients on hand.

They were originally recruited to be a rescue team. The idea was that back in May, if anything seriously damaged Endeavour during its final flight, Ferguson and his team would have rushed to the space station and brought those astronauts home.

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If no rescue was needed, the original plan went, Ferguson's crew simply wouldn't fly. And Atlantis would be sent to a museum along with the two other retired shuttles.

But early this year, NASA decided to add one more flight. Since Atlantis was being groomed for a potential rescue anyway, NASA reasoned, why not make a cargo run with a year's worth of food and other provisions to keep the space station well-stocked

Unorthodox rescue plan
That added a new wrinkle: What if Atlantis were damaged? There are no more shuttles to rescue them.

The only viable option is the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The capsules can carry a maximum three people at a time, and at least one must be Russian. That's why Atlantis' crew was capped at four, instead of the usual six or seven.

It will be NASA's first four-person shuttle crew since 1983.

Ferguson and his short-handed crew know there's a chance — about 1-in-560 — that they could be stranded at the space station because of flight damage to Atlantis.

If that happens, it will take close to a year to get the last person home. Hurley, a Marine, drew the long straw.

The travel sequence is based on robotic-arm and spacewalking skills, as well as accumulated exposure to cosmic radiation. That last factor alone prevents Magnus, a former space station resident, from spending too long a time in space.

Hurley — who is married to astronaut Karen Nyberg and has a 1-year-old son — looks at the bright side.

"If it works out that way, I get a yearlong expedition for nine months of training, so that's a pretty good return on the investment," he said. He points to Magnus, a scientist whose specialty is in cathodes and radar, who trained four years for a mere four-month station stay.

Yearlong space missions are exceedingly rare; only three Russian cosmonauts have attempted it. The longest an American has spent in space, at a stretch, is seven months.

That's how far NASA's astronauts are willing to go, these days, for a shot at space.

Soyuz takes center stage
Until private companies get piloted spacecraft flying — an estimated three to 10 years out — NASA will have to stick with the pricey Russian Soyuz to get U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

For Americans, that means just a handful of flying opportunities a year. Compare that with the 35 to 50 seats that the shuttles typically provided each year.

Little wonder, then, that NASA's astronaut corps has shrunk to 61 active members. Only the youngest and most patient are willing to wait out these conflicted, money-tight times.

Few people, it seems, can agree on where NASA should aim next. The moon, an asteroid, Mars? And how best to get there?

As the debate and uncertainty drag on, Ferguson said he's seen no ill feeling toward NASA by those still toiling in the shuttle program. Thousands more layoffs are coming as soon as Atlantis lands, on top of the thousands of jobs already lost.

Ferguson rejects suggestions the U.S. space program is headed downhill with the shuttle's retirement. "Hopefully, we'll see 10 years of good-quality science out of the space station," he said. "We still have a vibrant program going on."

355 shuttle fliers included Saudi prince
Despite two horrific accidents that killed 14 astronauts and destroyed two spacecraft, the shuttle program has carried more people than any other space fleet — 355 people from 16 countries. That includes Saudi Arabia, which flew a prince aboard Discovery in 1985.

Space miles logged by the five shuttles: 537 million, with 4 million more to come this mission.

"There is not an American who doesn't look upon an ascending shuttle with a certain sense of American pride, hair on the back of your neck, chills, call it what you will," Ferguson said.

The space shuttle is "a quintessential American vehicle," said Walheim, a retired Air Force colonel who will serve as the flight engineer. "You point to that and people know it's from the United States, so I think we're losing that piece of identity."

The four astronauts feel the extra burden of putting "the best possible face forward for the last go-around of this," as Ferguson describes it.

This should not be a time of mourning, these astronauts say, or for second-guessing the shuttle retirement decision made seven years ago by President George W. Bush in the wake of the Columbia disaster.

Celebrating the successes
Ferguson and his crew want this final flight to be a celebration. They point to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched and repaired by shuttle crews, as well as the International Space Station. Nearly one-third of the 135 shuttle flights were spent building or supplying the nearly 1 million-pound orbiting laboratory.

For now, Atlantis' astronauts are focused on the upcoming cargo mission, humble as it is.

They'll provide robotic-arm support for a spacewalk by two space station astronauts. But most of the work involves hauling supplies from Atlantis into the station, and carting out broken equipment and junk for disposal back on Earth.

One thing Ferguson didn't count on, when mapping out the training flow months ago, was all the emotional conversation that has added to the crew's already long workdays. Almost every shuttle worker they encounter wants to share a story: How long they've worked at Kennedy Space Center and what the shuttle program means to them.

"At the end of the day ... we're like, wow, there's a lot of emotion here," Ferguson said. "But they're all stories that we want to hear."

Ferguson expects "the enormity of it to hit us" at wheels-stop on landing day — July 20, the 42nd anniversary of man's first steps on the moon, if the schedule holds.

The astronauts say they will have to be pried from the cockpit. Magnus expects to shed tears as she sits on the runway, "contemplating 30 years of a spectacular program."

"We are blessed to have been a part of it. All of us, not just perhaps the chosen few who are lucky enough to fly it, but as a country," Ferguson said.

Until then, he said, "We're just trying to savor the moment. We want to be able to say, 'We remember when. We remember when there was a space shuttle.'"

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Gallery: Space crews in the spotlight

Meet the crews of NASA's last space shuttle mission and the International Space Station.

Video: It's the final countdown for US shuttle program

  1. Closed captioning of: It's the final countdown for US shuttle program

    >>> this week, marks the beginning of the end of an era. the final countdown for america 's space shuttle program . the shuttle "atlantis" is scheduled to lift off on friday with a crew of four on a resupply mission to the international space station . tonight, nbc's tom costello looks back at three decades of stunning achievement and tragic setbacks.

    >> reporter: ask anyone old enough to remember april 12th , 1981 , and chances are, they do.

    >> the shuttle has cleared the tower.

    >> reporter: columbia rocketed to the space with its crew of two. settle i think we've got something that's really going to mean something to the crew and the world.

    >> reporter: after two days of orbit it landed safely in the california desert. "atlantis's" crew of four is preparing for the final countdown .

    >> we want to make sure that the thousands and thousands of people that put their hands on the space shuttle are honored by this mission and the legacy of the space shuttle .

    >> reporter: for three decades, the shuttle program has brought incredible triumph. the launch of the hubble telescope , john glen 's return to space, the construction of the international space station , and the hubble repair mission. but also, tragedy. the loss of "challenger" and columbia. and lingering questions about whether spending 14 years in low- earth orbit has been worth the financial and scientific investment.

    >> it's been remarkable in what it's been able to accomplish. it's been stunning in what we've been able to learn from it.

    >> reporter: with the launch of the shuttle program , tens of thousands of workers across the country are losing their jobs. many in florida. until commercial rockets are ready, american will rely on the russian space program to carry astronauts into space. but the head of nasa insists america is not giving up its leadership.

    >> some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. and i'm not about to let human space flight go away on my watch.

    >> reporter: meanwhile, the burden of the final mission falls on commander chris ferguson .

    >> i hope that i paint nasa in the finest light, that we pull off the cleanest mission that is possible. because we want to finish on the strongest note.

    >> reporter: a strong close as america turns the page in space exploration . tom costello, nbc news, washington.

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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  1. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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