Last 4 Shuttle Astronauts Arrive at Launch Site on Independence Day
NASA’s final space shuttle crew waves American flags celebrating their Fourth of July arrival at Kennedy Space Center for their launch on July 8, 2011. From left to right: Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
Credit: collectSPACE/Robert Pearlman

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. ET.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With a real 'rocket's red glare' awaiting them, the four American astronauts who will fly NASA's final space shuttle mission made an Independence Day arrival today at their Florida launch site for a planned July 8 liftoff.

"I think I speak for the whole crew that we are just delighted to be here. After a very arduous nine month training flow, we're thrilled being here for launch week," said the mission's commander Chris Ferguson.

The Atlantis shuttle crew departed midday aboard two T-38 supersonic jets from Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, for their Fourth of July arrival here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at just past 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT).

The astronauts touched down on the same runway where, nearly two weeks after launching, they plan to land space shuttle Atlantis for the final time in the winged spacecraft fleet's 30-year history.

"When it's all over, I think I again speak for everyone when I say that we'll be very proud to put the right-hand bookend on the space shuttle program," Ferguson said.

NASA's final shuttle flight, called STS-135, is a 12-day mission to deliver vital supplies to the International Space Station. Liftoff is scheduled for Friday, July 8 at 11:26 a.m. EDT (1526 GMT) from Kennedy’s Launch Pad 39A. NASA will start its official countdown clocks on Tuesday at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT) at the T-43 hour mark.

Foregoing July 4th fireworks

"This is a day that is decidedly American. A day when we kind of reflect on our independence and all the wonderful things that we really have as a part of being a United States of America," said Ferguson of his and his crewmates’ July 4 arrival.

Reflecting may be the only holiday activity the astronauts take part in, foregoing the traditional fireworks show in favor of pre-launch activities.

"The big highlight of the [crew's Independence] day will be the jet ride from Ellington to Florida," NASA spokesperson Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters, of the agency's Johnson Space Center, told SPACE.com before the crew arrived in Florida. [Best Space Fireworks Ever]

With their family members following later, the four Atlantis astronauts — Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim — will spend the remainder of the holiday reviewing procedures before turning in for an early night.

"They'll have a [pressure] suit tech and flight data file tag up, just a chance to checkout some of that gear," Cloutier-Lemasters said. "Then they'll have meal time and then some personal time to study or relax."

"That will pretty much wrap up their day," she said. "They'll be hitting the hay around 8 p.m."

Their own light show

Should the weather cooperate, space shuttle Atlantis will provide the ultimate rocket show on Friday, launching on the 135th and final flight of NASA's shuttle program.

NASA anticipates nearly 1 million spectators to fill the beaches and roads near Kennedy Space Center to watch the orbiter lift off for space one last time.

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 shuttles Discovery and Endeavour completed their own final missions earlier this year.

 

"We just want to honor the entire Kennedy team that has worked on these magnificent machines over the last 30 plus years," Hurley said.

The crew plans several tributes during the mission to the iconic American vehicle and its legacy of the shuttle within the nation's space program. Among their announced activities is the display of a U.S. flag honoring fallen soldiers, police, firefighters and astronauts.

The shuttle flyers will also partake in an "All-American" meal that was originally intended to be eaten on July 4. But delays pushed their launch beyond Independence Day.

"It's such a pleasure to come down here when you have a rocket on the pad and it's got your stuff loaded on it," Walheim said.

Robert Pearlman is a SPACE.com contributor and editor of collectSPACE.com. You can follow him @robertpearlman or on Facebook. Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage of Atlantis' final mission STS-135 or follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.