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Crew arrives at shuttle pad to practice launch

Space shuttle Atlantis stands on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it is set to liftoff on STS-135, the final shuttle mission, on July 8.
Space shuttle Atlantis stands on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it is set to liftoff on STS-135, the final shuttle mission, on July 8.NASA/Terry Zaperach
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The four astronauts who will fly on the last-ever space shuttle mission landed at NASA's Florida spaceport Monday evening to participate in a dress rehearsal for their July 8 launch.

Flying in a pair of NASA's T-38 supersonic jets, the crew touched down at 5:30 p.m. EDT here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, landing on the same runway the astronauts plan to use when they return to Earth at the end of their upcoming mission.

NASA's final shuttle flight, called STS-135, is a 12-day mission on the shuttle Atlantis that will deliver vital supplies to the International Space Station.

The shuttle will be commanded by Chris Ferguson, who landed his T-38 jet today with crewmate Rex Walheim, an Atlantis mission specialist. Atlantis' pilot Doug Hurley rode in on the second T-38 jet with mission specialist Sandra Magnus.

The four astronauts left Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, at just before 2 p.m. EDT. They stopped over in Mobile, Alabama to refuel before proceeding to their Florida launch site.

Launch practice on tap
Over the next three days, the Atlantis crew  will take part in a number of training activities leading up to their suiting up and climbing aboard the shuttle on Thursday to proceed through their prelaunch checklists as a simulated countdown ticks down to just before engine ignition.

The training session has been standard for all NASA shuttle missions and is known as the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, or TCDT.

Before the actual launch day rehearsal on Thursday, Ferguson and Hurley will practice landing Atlantis by flying a specially modified Gulfstream jet. The shuttle astronauts will also undergo training in case there is an emergency on the launch pad, as well as review procedures to use a slidewire system to evacuate the pad and will take turns driving a tank-like armored personnel carrier.

Atlantis' last cargo
Meanwhile, shuttle technicians working out on the launch pad continued Monday installing a cargo pod inside Atlantis' payload bay.

Now positioned for launch, the Raffaello logistics module is packed with more than 8,000 pounds of supplies and equipment for the space station. A separate experiment platform is also packed in Atlantis' payload bay.

Technicians were also busy performing X-ray scans of support beams inside Atlantis' external fuel tank.

The 50-foot beams, called "stringers," were being inspected to ensure no cracks formed during a recent fueling test that filled the orange-brown tank with super-cold propellants subjecting it to the same super-cold temperatures it will experience on launch day.

Workers also began replacing a fuel valve in Atlantis' space shuttle main engine No. 3 Monday after seeing indications it was leaking during the tanking test.

Atlantis' upcoming mission will be the 135th and last shuttle mission for NASA since the fleet began launching into orbit in April 1981.

NASA is retiring its three-shuttle fleet this year to make way for a new exploration program aimed at deep-space missions to an asteroid and Mars. The shuttle's Discovery and Endeavour completed their own final missions earlier this year.

After Atlantis flies its final mission the shuttle, like its sister ships, will be sent to museums for public display.

Robert Pearlman is a contributor and editor of You can follow him @ robertpearlman or on . Follow on Twitter @