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Last shuttle crew faces a heavy load

Richard Carson / Reuters

Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson takes a video of the media gathered before the beginning of today's news conference with fellow astronauts Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The four astronauts assigned to the last mission of NASA's 30-year-long space shuttle program aren't just burdened with the weight of history: They're expected to transfer four tons of supplies from the shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station in just a few days' time, the kind of job that's usually done with a six- or seven-person crew. They have to be ready to take shelter on the station for months, in the event that something goes wrong with their ride. And as if that weren't enough, they're being inundated with requests for tickets to watch the last-ever liftoff of America's winged spaceship.

If I were a member of Atlantis' foursome, I'd be feeling totally overwhelmed right now. But Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson sounds as if he's totally cool with a mission even he admits will be "very busy, very event-filled."

"This is the right crew for the right time," Ferguson told reporters today during the last-ever shuttle crew news conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Atlantis is scheduled to begin its 12-day flight with a July 8 launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle's crew of veteran NASA astronauts, including Ferguson as well as pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim, will be leaving Houston on the Fourth of July to make final preparations for liftoff.

The main objective of the shuttle program's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, is the transfer of supplies, spare parts and science experiments from the Italian-made Raffaello cargo carrier that's sitting in Atlantis' hold. Items have been color-coded to facilitate the moving job: Everything on the shuttle that has a yellow tag goes into the space station. Everything on the station that has a green tag goes onto the shuttle for return to Earth.

The moving operation will proceed so quickly that "if you stand still and hold a yellow label in your hand," you could find yourself swept up in it, Ferguson joked.

Magnus said she visualizes forming a bucket brigade to facilitate the move. "It's fun to fly around with these bags, back and forth," she said. But even in zero-G, all these objects have inertial mass, so the astronauts have to be careful not to get thrown into a spin during the transfer operations. "You get a little lesson in Newton's laws," Magnus said.

Skeleton crew
The big move is the top priority, but the to-do list doesn't stop there. Two spacewalkers from the space station's crew, Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, will help transfer a broken coolant pump module to Atlantis' cargo bay, and bring out a robotic refueling experiment for installation on the space station. While Garan and Fossum take on maintenance tasks on the station's exterior, Atlantis' skeleton crew will play supporting roles inside the station.

The reason why there are only four astronauts on this last mission is because NASA has to have a contingency plan to keep them on the space station, in the event that serious damage is done to Atlantis during its ascent. The plan calls for the crew members to be rescued, one by one, by taking seats on Russian Soyuz craft over the course of several months. Mission planners decided that a four-person crew was the right number: small enough to make for a realistic rescue plan, while big enough to execute Atlantis' final mission.

It doesn't make the job easy for the astronauts, though. When Ferguson was asked whether there were any advantages to having a smaller-than-usual crew, he could come up with only one: "There are less opinions to contend with," he joked.

Contending with crowds
Although NASA officials haven't yet said how many people they expect to attend Atlantis' launch, it could be one of the biggest crowds to gather around the Florida launch site. At one point, mission managers thought that up to 700,000 spectators might turn out for last month's final launch of the shuttle Endeavour, and the fact that this is the last-ever chance to see a space shuttle launch could well make for higher interest this time around.

"Anybody who has not seen a shuttle launch in person is really missing out," Hurley said. Even the astronauts are having a hard time deciding who will get precious VIP tickets. (Each crew member has about 300 tickets to distribute.)

"The tickets are starting to get more valuable as the launch gets closer," Walheim said.

There's been so much hubbub about the mission that Ferguson said he was actually glad to go into quarantine, the period just before a launch when astronauts are shut off from much of the outside world for medical reasons. "I'm looking forward to a little bit of quiet time," the commander said.

The weight of history
After months of preparations, Atlantis' crew members said it was just now sinking in that they are going to be the last astronauts to ride a space shuttle into orbit — and they had mixed emotions about that. On one hand, Walheim said "we are going to lose a little bit of the beauty of the country when we retire the space shuttle." Ferguson went even further, saying that bidding farewell to the shuttle would be like mourning a friend.

On the other hand, all four astronauts pointed out that Americans would keep on flying into space — initially on Russian transports to the space station, and then on U.S.-made commercial space taxis, and then on a new breed of NASA spaceships designed to go beyond Earth orbit.

Such reflections on the shuttle's past, and on the future of spaceflight, ended up being the weightiest matters considered at today's news briefing. Ferguson predicted that the next person who flies on a U.S. spacecraft into low Earth orbit "probably will not have a NASA badge ... it'll be a badge from Boeing, or SpaceX, or Sierra Nevada." The current scenario calls for those companies' spaceships to be flown initially by private-sector test pilots, and then cleared for the space agency's use. It will take the better part of a decade before NASA astronauts once again guide the agency's next-generation spaceships to a new frontier. 

The 49-year-old commander of the last space shuttle mission recalled that he was inspired to become an astronaut by watching the launch of the first space shuttle mission 30 years ago. "I hope there will be another space vehicle ... that will inspire children in the same way," Ferguson said.

More about the last shuttle mission:

Stay tuned for more from Johnson Space Center this week, and much more about the shuttle program's final mission next week.

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