Five years later, shuttle team remembers final launch
Friday was anniversary date
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fl.a – The countdown to the final space shuttle launch was nearing its conclusion five years ago Friday when computers suddenly halted the clock with a half-minute to go.
Inside Atlantis, four puzzled astronauts wondered what was going on.
News partner Florida Today reported that a sensor had failed to confirm a vent arm had fully retracted from the shuttle’s orange, bullet-shaped external fuel tank.
But almost as quickly, the launch team confirmed the arm was clear, the countdown resumed and Atlantis’ was rocketing into low clouds to start the last of 135 shuttle missions departing Kennedy Space Center.
“The next thing you know, we’re halfway to space,” remembered Doug Hurley, the mission’s pilot, during a panel discussion Friday beneath Atlantis, which is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. “It was a pretty interesting moment, to say the least.”
For shuttle workers and fans, the 11:29 a.m. blastoff was a triumphant and also very sad moment — “bittersweet” was the most frequently used word.
Atlantis’ mission was the last of a program that spanned three decades.
The day after its landing nearly two weeks later, lead shuttle contractor United Launch Alliance would lay off roughly 1,500 employees, the last huge cut after a long wind-down that halved KSC’s work force to about 7,500 people.
Despite dealing with those difficult emotions and job pressures, the 13-day mission went off without a hitch.
“It was flawless, start to finish,” said KSC Director Bob Cabana, who joined Hurley, Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson and retired Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach on Friday. “That’s the focus that the team had in preparing for and executing this mission.”
Leinbach took pains to run the countdown as much like any other as possible, until after had Atlantis lifted off.
“After they cleared the pad and they were safely in orbit, then the emotions kind of started to hit us,” he recalled. “People were hugging each other, and I went around and shook everybody’s hand.”
Two days later as Atlantis approached the recently completed International Space Station, which couldn’t have been built without the shuttle, Ferguson paused to take in the scene.
“This is something that 30 years ago was just unthinkable,” he remembers thinking. “It was the subject of a science fiction movie.”
Ferguson, Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim arrived at the station with a module packed with supplies and spare parts.
After undocking, during a rare quiet period before it was time to focus on returning home, the crew spent an orbit gazing down on Earth.
“It was pretty emotional,” said Hurley.
After announcing its arrival with twin sonic booms, Atlantis touched down before dawn on July 21 and rolled to a stop on KSC’s runway.
Ferguson, knees shaking with nerves, read a prepared tribute from a note card: “Mission complete, Houston. After serving the world for over 30 years, the shuttle has earned its place in history, and it’s come to a final stop.”
As recovery crews moved in to take over the orbiter and return it to its hangar, Ferguson and Hurley didn’t want to leave their seats in the crew cabin.
“I just thought, ‘We’re not done yet,’” said Ferguson. “It was hard getting out.”
But the next day, the sobering realization set in: “It’s really over.”
Friday's reminiscing about the final mission also presented an opportunity to celebrate the program’s accomplishments and look at what’s coming next.
NASA is preparing the giant Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsules to launch crews on deep space missions by 2023.
Boeing and SpaceX are developing commercial crew capsules that could fly crews from the Space Coast to the space station by late next year or early 2018, ending reliance on Russian vehicles for rides to orbit.
Ferguson is director of crew and mission operations for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner team. Hurley is one of four NASA astronauts selected to “wring out” the new capsules on their first test flights.
“We’re sort of setting the stage for commercial habitation of low Earth orbit, all with the intent of going beyond,” said Ferguson. “So it all actually does make an awful lot of sense.”
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