Video: Watch NASA's final shuttle mission

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/15/2011 2:54:14 PM ET 2011-07-15T18:54:14

President Barack Obama told the crew of the space shuttle program's last mission that he's proud of them and the "amazing feats" they are accomplishing in space.

Friday's phone call represented the final Earth-to-space communication between the White House and a shuttle crew. Ten astronauts in all gathered to take the call, including the four crew members of the shuttle Atlantis and the six residents of the International Space Station.

Obama couldn't resist slipping in a joke or two. When the astronauts came on the line, the president feigned surprise, saying, "I was just dialing out for pizza and I didn't expect to end up in space."

Later in the call, he referred to the fact that 10 people had to share the space station's two toilets and Atlantis' sole bathroom. "My wife and my daughters are always crowding me out — hopefully you guys have a more organized arrangement than we do."

But the main themes of his conversation were praise and thanks for the shuttle program's service.

"I know that there have been thousands who have poured their hearts and souls into America's space shuttle program over the last three decades that are following this journey with special interest," he said. "And to them and all the men and women of NASA, I want to say thank you. You helped our country lead the space age, and you continue to inspire us."

Atlantis is in the midst of a 13-day resupply mission to the space station. Its landing, currently set for next Thursday, will spell the end of the 30-year space shuttle program. Atlantis and its two sister shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour, are to be retired to museums.

The president asked about the robotic satellite-refueling experiment that was brought to the station on Atlantis, and said it was a "good reminder of how NASA technology and reearch oftentimes has huge spillover effects into the commercial sector."

Looking ahead to future
Obama said NASA would continue to push the frontiers of space exploration and human spaceflight in the post-shuttle era. The White House has set a goal of sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and to Mars and its moons by the mid-2030s.

In the meantime, commercial space taxis will be developed to take supplies to the space station and eventually take astronauts up as well. Atlantis' crew is leaving behind a U.S. flag that was flown on the very first shuttle mission, to be turned over to the next crew to arrive on the station on a spaceship launched from U.S. soil.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

"I understand it's going to be sort of like a 'capture the flag' moment here for commercial spaceflight," Obama said. "So good luck to whoever grabs that flag."

Atlantis' commander, Chris Ferguson, said "we sure hope to see some of our commercial partners climbing on board really soon." NASA's timetable calls for such flights to begin around 2015. Between now and then, the space agency will have to purchase rides on Russian Soyuz craft at a price of up to $63 million a seat.

Computer fixed
Earlier in the day, Atlantis' crew fixed another one of their main computers, after it failed and set off an alarm that shattered their sleep. The first computer failure occurred just before Atlantis docked with the space station on Sunday. New software loads took care of both problems, and NASA declared all five of Atlantis' main computers — three primary systems and two backups — to be working.

The five computers are critical for a space shuttle's return to Earth — so crucial that multiple shutdowns, in certain circumstances, could prompt an early return home.

Computer failures like this are extremely rare in orbit, lead flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho said. The two problems appear to be quite different, he noted. The first was caused by a bad switch throw; the second possibly by cosmic radiation.

"The fact that we did have two computer failures on a same flight on a spacecraft that's otherwise performing beautifully, that's not at all lost on me," Alibaruho told reporters.

"I do have a saying that you're not paranoid if they really are after you, so I am cautiously optimistic that we'll have a healthy data-processing system" for Atlantis' undocking and return to Earth next week, he added. "But we will be watching closely."

Ferguson said the alarm sounded an hour or so after the four astronauts had gone to bed, during the deepest part of their sleep.

"We all woke up and looked at one another, and we were wondering really what was going on," he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday morning. The astronauts rushed to the flight deck and switched to a backup computer. Within a half-hour they were back in bed.

Too busy to reflect
Ferguson and his co-pilot, Douglas Hurley, said they're still too busy moving items back and forth between the linked Atlantis and space station to dwell on the looming end of the shuttle program. The shuttle delivered several tons of food, clothes and other household goods for the station; it will return loaded with old station equipment and trash.

The topic came up at Thursday's special all-American dinner of grilled chicken, barbecued beef, baked beans, corn and Hostess apple pie. Ferguson said he told the nine other spacefliers, "Hey, you know, this is the last joint meal that we're ever going to have aboard a space shuttle."

Ferguson said it was a "sobering, somber moment."

"But at the same time, we're extremely fortunate to have had 37 missions, I thnk, to the International Space Station now, so we're very lucky to have done this," he said.

Hurley said his most memorable moment of the 13-day mission, so far, was seeing the faces of the two astronauts who were outside, just a few feet away, as he operated the robot arm during Tuesday's spacewalk, the last one of the shuttle program.

"It really seemed like it was out of a science fiction movie," he said. "You could see the expression on their faces."

Another highlight for Hurley: an "incredible" display of southern lights on Thursday night.

As their time at the space station wound down, the shuttle crew got another celebrity call Friday, this time from musician Paul McCartney.

"Good luck on this, your last mission. Well done," McCartney said in a prerecorded message. The wake-up music was "Good Day Sunshine" by the Beatles. The previous two days, Elton John and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe sent greetings.

This report includes information from msnbc.com and The Associated Press.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

loading photos...
  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
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  2. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments