Reverence Reigns Over NASA's Final Shuttle Missions
Morning breaks over Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida following the arrival of space shuttle Atlantis in preparation for its final flight, the STS-132 mission in May 2010.
Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

From top mission controllers on through the ranks of astronauts and shuttle workers, reverence reigns over the upcoming last flight of the space shuttle Atlantis - the first of NASA's final shuttle missions this year.

Atlantis is set to make her 32nd and final planned launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday. The mission is the third-to-last shuttle flight ever. The orbiter is slated to carry six astronauts and a new Russian science module to the International Space Station.

"There is a little bit of reverence that the mission will be conducted with given that it?s the final planned flight of Atlantis," said NASA lead shuttle flight director Mike Sarafin.

There is a small possibility that Atlantis will actually take to the skies again after this. The orbiter is tapped as the "launch-on-need" shuttle that would serve as an emergency rescue ship to save astronauts in the event of a major failure during the final shuttle mission on Endeavour, scheduled to launch no earlier than Nov. 26. [Memorable NASA missions.]

Space shuttle retirement ahead

NASA is retiring its decades-old space shuttle fleet to focus on building new technology and rockets, such as a vehicle to eventually take humans to asteroids or Mars faster than anything yet developed. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has proposed using private industry to pick up the slack in low-Earth orbit, with NASA relying on commercial spacecraft to ferry astronauts and paying passengers to the International Space Station.

While Atlantis' upcoming launch is momentous for some, other NASA officials said they were more focused on simply getting the job done.

"I have not spent a lot of time thinking about last this and last that," said John Shannon, NASA's space shuttle program manager, during a briefing last week. "I think maybe after we get all done, then we'll release the big breath and then maybe think about what it all meant to us. But not while we're in the middle of actually processing and flying these vehicles."

Atlantis' STS-132 mission commander, veteran astronaut Kenneth Ham, echoed that thought.

"This is probably the kind of thing that's really going to hit all of us after we're done with the mission and we realize what part of history we may have played," Ham said. "I think the space shuttle as a machine is the single most incredible machine humanity has ever built? The program has to come to an end at some point, and it is an honor and privilege for us to represent being part of that crew at the end."

Atlantis' six-astronaut crew will launch on a planned 12-day mission to deliver the new Russian "Rassvet" (which means "Dawn" in Russian) science module and vital spare parts for the nearly complete space station. Three spacewalks are planned for the mission.

Legacy in space

Atlantis was the fourth shuttle built, after Columbia, Challenger and Discovery (Endeavour followed later as a replacement for Challenger).

Atlantis was named after a two-masted sailing ship that served as a research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930 to 1966. It launched on its first space mission on Oct. 3, 1985.

Some of the past crews that have worked and flown on Atlantis will gather to watch its final liftoff this week, said astronaut Jerry Ross, a veteran of seven space shuttle missions, five of which have been on Atlantis.

"I am looking forward to seeing it fly," Ross said. "It is a great flying bird. Personally I think it?s the best one of the fleet."