NASA's final space shuttle mission, which launched 10 years ago this week, almost didn't happen.
The mission on space shuttle Atlantis, called STS-135, launched on July 8, 2011. It was initially planned as a backup flight and not officially authorized in NASA's budget until January 2011, just six months before launch. That tight schedule caused a bit of scrambling for Atlantis' crew of four, not to mention the ground teams, but everything worked out well in the end, as the astronauts and some of their ground-based team leaders recalled in a NASA celebration of their flight on Thursday (July 8).
STS-135 mission specialist Rex Walheim had volunteered to be on "any of the last three flights," he recalled in NASA's 10th anniversary event, which was livestreamed on NASA TV. So imagine his disappointment when at first, the 30-year program was slated to end one mission earlier, with STS-134, and he was not named to any flight manifest.
"It's kind of like being in line for Space Mountain, and the line closes right before you get up there," said Walheim, referring to the popular Disney World ride just an hour's drive away from where shuttles launched and landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Florida.
On call for space
But Walheim and his crewmates were ready to go when the announcement came, having been in training for three months before STS-135 was finally officially authorized. It still was a quick turnaround with a nine-month training cycle rather than the usual year or more, said mission pilot Doug Hurley, but the crew felt a sense of camaraderie that brought them through the intense experience.
The teamwork came to a culmination during their last night in orbit, when Hurley, Walheim, mission specialist Sandy Magnus and commander Chris Ferguson all sat on the flight deck silently drinking in the view of the nighttime Earth below.
"You just have to take it all in, because you never know if you're going to go back," Hurley said. He did end up going back, flying alongside SpaceX Demo-2 pilot and fellow NASA astronaut Bob Behnken in May 2020 on the first crewed orbital flight from the U.S. since Atlantis' final launch. The pair spent two months at the International Space Station before returning home.
One last shuttle voyage
STS-135 was a major supply run for the International Space Station, an orbiting complex that relied on the space shuttle to bring up the major pieces. Among its milestones, the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Raffaello made its final trip to orbit in the shuttle's payload bay, filled to the brim with its maximum of 16 resupply racks to exchange experiments in space.
The empty middeck on the shuttle — as there were only four crew members on STS-135 instead of the usual six or seven people — also allowed the shuttle to bring home a little bit of extra trash and unneeded supplies from the space station, ahead of expected years of flights from the three-person Russian Soyuz spacecraft and a fleet of smaller cargo ships with less capacity than the space shuttle.
The shuttle's safe nighttime landing on July 21, 2011 marked the end of American-launched crewed missions to space for almost exactly nine years, until Hurley and Behnken launched on a SpaceX Crew Dragon on May 30, 2020. Now, with the 10th anniversary of STS-135's mission ongoing, the crew members and flight directors are using the milestone as a moment to reflect on where the space program was 10 years ago and where it is going today.
The space age is changing rapidly, not least in terms of the types of people going to space. For example, Virgin Galactic expects to make its fourth crewed suborbital spaceflight on Sunday (July 11), with founder Richard Branson and company personnel on board. Blue Origin plans to launch the first crewed mission of its suborbital New Shepard vehicle on July 20, with a crew including Mercury 13 female aviator Wally Funk and company founder Jeff Bezos (better known for founding Amazon). Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin eventually plan to fly well-heeled space tourists in the coming years.
And crewed flights to the space station are happening regularly from the United States again. SpaceX's Crew Dragon is already up and running, and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule may start carrying astronauts as soon as next year. Crew Dragon is being repurposed for other things, too; the all-civilian Inspiration4 flight plans to launch on a free-flying orbital mission later this year, while Axiom Space plans to use Crew Dragon for the first all-private astronaut visit to the ISS in 2022.
Meanwhile, NASA is planning out its Artemis program that may put humans on the moon as soon as 2024, if the Biden administration commits to that Trump-era deadline. The new administration has not yet said when the first crewed Artemis landings will happen, although it continues to sign Artemis Accord agreements with other nations and proceed with development of Artemis 1, an uncrewed trip that may launch for a round-the-moon trip at the end of 2021.
Magnus said this growing community of spacefarers should remember the painful "lessons learned" that NASA went through with the space shuttle. While she did not allude to specifics, the space community usually refers to two tragic accidents that forever marked the shuttle program: the Challenger explosion of 1986 and the breaking apart of the shuttle Columbia during its return to Earth in 2003. Those two incidents killed 14 people and forced major redesigns of the shuttle program.
"Lessons in our industry are very painful," Magnus said. "We're going to be learning more as a community, as the community gets broader and broader, but I would just encourage people to keep their eye on the past, to inform their future actions."
For the STS-135 crew, another solemn moment was leaving an American flag on the ISS for the next U.S.-launched crew to bring back to Earth. (Nobody knew at the time that Hurley would be on both crews, given the nine-year gap between the flag's dropoff and pickup.) The dropoff ceremonies included a call with then-President Barack Obama, and Ferguson said he was tasked with an important job: not to forget the flag on camera.
Ferguson — today a commercial astronaut for Boeing — recalled his reaction when he got a last stern reminder just prior to launching to space that the flag needed to be there: "I'm all over this." But shuttle missions were hectic affairs, and a blur of spacewalks, science and maintenance activities had Ferguson successfully crossing off lots of checklist items — except for one important thing.
"Probably 10 days later, we're gathering for this interview, and it's President Obama and a few other distinguished individuals," Ferguson said. The cameras started rolling, he continued, and "about 30 seconds into this [call], I'm thinking to myself, 'My hands are behind my back, and the flag is not in either one. How is this going to go?' It ended up going fine, but that was one of my, you know, more interesting memories."
Happily, at least the STS-135 crew was able to leave the space station on schedule on Atlantis, which today is on display at the Kennedy Space Center. If pre-departure inspections had revealed problems with the shuttle's heat-shield tiles, Walheim said, the plan was to bring down the crew members one at a time on Soyuz spacecraft over the ensuing months. (Such inspections became routine after it was determined that tile damage incurred during launch was responsible for the loss of Columbia.) Hurley would have been stuck up there the longest, he said, making him the first American to go about a year in space, long before Scott Kelly marked that milestone in 2014-15.
Less publicized at the time of STS-135's flight was the huge network of ground personnel who supported the mission, with many of those people facing unemployment due to the end of the space shuttle program once processing of Atlantis' landing was completed.
"The team … stayed together and did the job right, knowing that the end was coming and some of them would be laid off," recalled now-retired launch director Michael Leinbach in a separate interview Tuesday on NASA TV. "But they all pulled together and did the right thing for the good of the crew."
Leinbach added that one of the safety lessons he tried to impart to his team was how "signing off" on mission items during planning and operations meant taking responsibility, and not just agreeing with colleagues or managers.
"If everyone held that mindset of being a responsible person for themselves first, then I think that would bleed over into the rest of the team and for the good of the program," he said, saying he urged team members to speak up and have "open conversations" at all times to protect the astronauts.
Joining Leinbach during the interview was Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, who served as the chief of launch and landing through the retirement of the space shuttle program. (Blackwell-Thompson is also the launch director of Artemis 1.) Knowing STS-135 was the last mission, she recalled, "you couldn't quite bring yourself to leave" after the mission safely touched down.
She recalled walking back to the Orbiter Processing Facility a few hours after landing, while Atlantis was being towed there from the runway. "It was a hot day, and every now and then as we walked with Atlantis, I kind of ducked under the wing for a little bit of shade," she said.
"I remember thinking how special that was, how that was a memory that I would take with me through my entire career … to know that that really was the final touchdown. The program was coming to an end. It had been a great program; it's been a great run. To be able to walk Atlantis back was just a really special, special thing for me."
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