Video: Watch NASA's final shuttle mission

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/20/2011 12:06:27 PM ET 2011-07-20T16:06:27

The astronauts and support team for NASA's final space shuttle flight say they're feeling a rush of emotions as they head toward Thursday's historic landing.

"You know what? I really do feel like it's coming near the end," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson told an interviewer Wednesday.

  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

"It's going to be tough," Ferguson said during a series of TV interviews 24 hours before the scheduled touchdown. "It's going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years. But we're going to try to keep it upbeat. We're going to try to keep it light, and we're going to try to make it a celebration of the tremendous crowning achievements that have occurred over the last 30 years."

Among the highlights noted Wednesday by the four-member crew as well as flight controllers: the 180 satellites and other spacecraft deployed into orbit by the space shuttle fleet; and the construction of the International Space Station, a nearly 1 million-pound science outpost that took 12½ years and 37 shuttle flights to build.

Atlantis departed the space station Tuesday, after restocking it with a year's worth of supplies.

One last satellite
The very last satellite to be released from a space shuttle popped out of a can Wednesday: a little 8-pound (3.7-kilogram) box covered with experimental solar cells. PicoSat will conduct experiments for the Defense Department, testing whether a nanosatellite can be used as a reference point for ground tracking stations and monitoring space weather.

Entry flight director Tony Ceccacci told journalists that the satellite also took pictures of Atlantis in orbit and would send them down to the ground.

As soon as the mini-satellite was on its way, astronaut Rex Walheim read a poem that he wrote to mark the occasion. It was the first of many tributes planned over the next few days; on Wednesday evening, the Empire State Building in New York was due to light up in red, white and blue in honor of the space shuttle program.

Walheim read: "One more satellite takes its place in the sky, / the last of many that the shuttle let fly. / Magellan, Galileo, Hubble and more / have sailed beyond her payload bay doors. / They've filled science books and still more to come. / The shuttle's legacy will live on when her flying is done."

Flight controllers applauded back in Houston.

Thank-yous galore
On this last full day of this last mission, Ferguson told the controllers, "I'd love to have each and every one of you to stand up and take a bow, a round of applause. Then there would be no one to applaud and there would be nobody to watching the vehicle ... but believe me, our hearts go out to you."

Crew members also radioed down thanks to support teams at NASA's White Sands base in New Mexico, at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and elsewhere. Ferguson said thanking all the teams backing the shuttle program individually would be an impossible task. "We'd be here for another 135 missions trying to do that," he told Mission Control.

Atlantis' crew received words of encouragement in return. After the astronauts' wake-up call, featuring music from Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," Mission Control played a recorded salute from workers from Kennedy Space Center. "See you back at wheels stop," the crowd chanted.

The final day was emotional at Johnson Space Center in Texas.

"You guys must know that we do have a motto in the Mission Control Center that 'flight controllers don't cry,'" Ceccacci told reporters, as his eyes misted up just a bit. "So we're going to make sure we keep that."

Practicing for landing
Ferguson and his crew checked their critical flight systems and practiced for Thursday's planned 5:56:58 a.m. ET landing at Kennedy Space Center, not quite an hour before sunrise. Everything worked perfectly. To top it off, excellent weather was forecast to wind up the 135th flight of the space shuttle era.

There's a second landing opportunity available at 7:33 a.m. ET. And if Atlantis can't land in Florida on Thursday for some reason, backup landing strips could be opened up in California and New Mexico on Friday.

Asked by a TV interviewer what he would tell all those watching Atlantis' return to Earth, Ferguson echoed what he told the lead team of flight controllers on Tuesday.

"Take a good look at it (Atlantis) and make a memory because you're never going to see anything like this again," he said. "It's been an incredible ride."

Space station astronaut Michael Fossum posted on Twitter a photo of the shuttle docked to the station 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the blue planet, which he snapped during last week's spacewalk. He noted in the tweet: "When will such beautiful ship dock again to ISS?"

Next step in spaceflight
NASA already is shifting gears. It's working with private companies eager to take over cargo runs and astronaut flights to the space station. The first supply trip is expected to take place by the end of this year. Astronaut trips will take more time to put together, at least three to five years. In the meantime, NASA will depend on the Russians to ferry its astronauts back and forth, at a cost of up to $63 million per seat.

The long-term destination is true outer space: sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars the following decade. That's the plan put forth by President Barack Obama. His predecessor wanted the moon as the prize, but Obama pulled back from that goal after an independent panel said it was unachievable at current budget levels. Even now, budget worries are casting a shadow over the revised plans for the space program.

Throughout their 13-day mission and again on Wednesday, Atlantis' astronauts stressed the need for a decades-long space exploration plan that does not change with each incoming president.

Ceccacci, whose Mission Control experience dates back to the first shuttle flight in 1981, said it's tough to think about all the experience that will be walking out the door following this mission. Thousands of layoffs are looming at the various NASA centers; about 2,000 shuttle workers at Kennedy alone will get pink slips starting Friday. That's on top of the massive cutbacks already made.

"We know there's going to be a rough spot for a while," Ceccacci said. "But we hope that when we do get a good plan, a good direction, a good mission, that we can come back in here and do what we've been doing for the past 30 years for the shuttle and the years before that with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo."

Ceccacci plans to read a speech to his Houston flight control team, once Atlantis and its crew are safely back on Earth, but there will be none of the flag-waving, cigar-smoking celebrations seen during the moon-landing days. Smoking is no longer permitted in the control center, he reminded journalists.

Rather, Ceccacci said he will gather flight controllers around to watch Ferguson, co-pilot Doug Hurley, Walheim and Sandy Magnus walk around the last shuttle one last time on the runway — so the controllers can "soak it in ... and congratulate each other on a job well done."

Atlantis is the last of the shuttles to be retired. It will remain at Kennedy Space Center, eventually going on public display at the visitors complex. Discovery is bound for the Smithsonian Institution in suburban Washington, and Endeavour for the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

This report includes information from The Associated Press' Marcia Dunn and msnbc.com's Alan Boyle.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

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

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

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