The final space shuttle crew is now just hours away from undocking from the International Space Station, one last time.
Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim began the Flight Day 12 at 8:59 p.m. CDT. Their wakeup song was Coldplay's "Don't Panic," which was played for Hurley.
After 37 shuttle visits, in which 10 modules, four sets of solar arrays, 354 feet of truss and countless science experiments — not to mention the necessities of day-to-day living in space — have been delivered, space shuttle Atlantis will pull away from the International Space Station for the last time at 1:28 a.m.
Before the crew gets too far away however, they'll have one more service to perform for the orbiting laboratory. Hurley will move the shuttle out to a distance of 600 feet away, and then fly half a loop around the station, so that Atlantis' astronauts can photo document once more the product of the space shuttle fleet's efforts.
Although a fly-around has been performed following undocking for most of the shuttle missions to the ISS, this last half lap should provide some new views. The space station will rotate 90 degrees to give the shuttle crew a view down its long axis, an angle not normally visible.
The fly-around should be complete by 2:50 a.m., at which point Atlantis' engines will fire in a series of burns to begin moving it further away from the station. The crew will spend the second half of its day inspecting the shuttle's heat shield for any damage it may have received while in space.
Each day that the final space shuttle mission is in flight, collectSPACE plans to highlight milestones and events from the space shuttle's history that also occurred on the same day over the past three decades. "Today in Space Shuttle History" will also note "lasts" being set by the STS-135 mission.
STS-135 Flight Day 12, July 19
1943 Roy D. Bridges, Jr., pilot of space shuttle Challenger's STS-51F mission and later director of the Kennedy Space Center, is born. STS-51F included the space shuttle program's only abort, an Abort-To-Orbit (ATO), after the only in-flight main engine failure of the shuttle program.
1985 Vice President George H. W. Bush announces "the first private citizen passenger in the history of space flight," naming Sharon Christa McAuliffe as the chosen educator for NASA's Teacher in Space Program. Barbara Morgan is announced as McAuliffe's backup.
McAuliffe is tragically killed along with her six STS-51L crewmates aboard space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. Morgan joins NASA's astronaut corps in January 1998 and launches as the first educator mission specialist on Endeavour's STS-118 flight to the International Space Station in 2007.
2011 Atlantis undocks from the International Space Station (ISS), marking an end to the 37th and final visit by a space shuttle to the orbiting laboratory.
"Atlantis weighs anchor from the International Space Station for the last time."
— NASA mission commentator Rob Navias
For the 37th and final time, a space shuttle has departed the International Space Station (ISS).
With STS-135 pilot Doug Hurley at its controls, shuttle Atlantis undocked from the space station at 1:28 a.m. CDT Tuesday, as the two spacecraft orbited 243 miles above and to the east of Christchurch, New Zealand.
"Physical separation," radioed Atlantis' commander Chris Ferguson.
"Atlantis departing the International Space Station for the last time," said Expedition 28 flight engineer Ron Garan, as — following a shuttle-started tradition — he rang the station's ship bell. "Thank you for your 12 docked missions to the [station] and for capping off 37 space shuttle missions to construct this incredible orbiting research facility."
"We'll miss you guys. Godspeed, soft landing, and we'll see you back on Earth in the fall," said Garan.
"When a generation accomplishes a great thing, it has the right to stand back and for just a moment, admire and take pride in its work," radioed Ferguson from aboard Atlantis. "From our unique vantage point right here perched above the Earth, we can see the International Space Station as a wonderful accomplishment. It was born at the end of the Cold War, it has enabled many nations to speak [as] one in space."
"As the ISS now enters its era of utilization, we'll never forget the role the space shuttle played in its creation. Like a proud parent, we anticipate great things to follow from the men and women who build, operate, and live there. From this unique vantage point, we can see a great thing has been accomplished. Farewell ISS, make us proud," said Ferguson.
The separation marked the end of the 8 days, 15 hours, and 21 minutes that Atlantis was connected with the station during the STS-135 mission. In total, 37 shuttle missions have spent nearly 40 weeks — 276 days, 11 hours, and 23 minutes — docked to the space station.
"It looks like the sun is starting to go down and we just wanted to tell you one more time thanks so much for hosting us," radioed Ferguson to the station just before Atlantis departed. "It is a great station and it has been an absolute pleasure to participate in three different shuttle missions that have come up and docked to you and helped you get bigger and better with every pass."
"We'll miss you guys and we'll see you back on Earth," replied ISS flight engineer Ron Garan. "We'll try to get some good pictures of you."
STS-135 pilot Doug Hurley, having flown shuttle Atlantis to a distance of 600 feet in front of the International Space Station, brought the shuttle to a halt, station keeping for 27 minutes while the ISS rotated 90 degrees to present its longitudinal axis to Atlantis.
This unique perspective provided mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus the opportunity to capture imagery of the orbiting complex from angles the space shuttle has never seen before during its traditional post-undocking space station fly-around.
"You'll be happy to know you look just as good from the side as you do from the front," Atlantis' commander Chris Ferguson radioed the station.
"Not sure how to answer that one, but thanks," replied flight engineer Ron Garan from aboard the station.
"Hey, that's our good side," said ISS flight engineer Mike Fossum.
"What he said," said Garan.
With the station in position, Hurley flew Atlantis through a half-lap around the station above and behind the orbiting laboratory.
The fly-around also provided the final views of Atlantis — and the space shuttle — flying in space, as seen from cameras on the station.
At 3:18 a.m. CDT, STS-135 pilot Doug Hurley fired space shuttle Atlantis' thrusters to complete the second and final separation burn removing the shuttle from the vicinity of the International Space Station (ISS).
Atlantis is now on its own path for a return to Earth on Thursday, July 21.
Atlantis will begin to increase its distance behind the space station with each trip around the planet.
"We just wanted to give you a final goodbye," Atlantis' commander Chris Ferguson radioed the station.
"You guys looked really good on the fly-around from what we could see," replied flight engineer Ron Garan from on board the station. "Again, thank you so much for all that you guys have done for us up here. We really, really appreciate it."
"We just want to let you know that it's been our pleasure and honor to support this, the 37th mission of the space shuttle to the ISS," added capcom Dan Tani from Mission Control. "We're proud to be the last in a countless line of Mission Control teams that have had the honor to watch over the ISS while Discovery and Endeavour and Atlantis have visited over the last 13 years."
"From this room we've watched and supported as the shuttle has enabled the station to grow from a humble single module that was grappled by the shuttle's arm to a stunning facility that has grown so large that some astronauts have momentarily gotten lost in it... you can take it from me," said Tani, a fellow shuttle and station crew member.
"The ISS wouldn't be here without the space shuttle, so while we have the communication link up for the last time, we wanted to say thank you and farewell to the magnificent machines that delivered, assembled, and staffed our world class laboratory in space," Tani said.
"It has been an incredible ride," replied Ferguson. "On behalf of the four of us, we are really appreciative that we had the opportunity to work with you and extremely fortunate to have taken part in this pivotal mission."
"We're looking forward to in a couple of days to meeting up with most of you and patting you on the back and sharing in the stories, some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that we hopefully successfully hid from you, but believe me, there was a little bit of pandemonium between what appeared to be all the calm."
"We're glad to be headed home and we're happy to serve with you," said Ferguson.
Atlantis' astronauts have started surveying their shuttle's heat shield, in the last of the routine "late inspections" for the shuttle program.
Using the Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS), a 50-foot camera-tipped extension to the shuttle's Canadarm robotic arm, the crew is conducting the high fidelity, three-dimensional scan of the regions on the orbiter that experience the highest heating during entry into Earth's atmosphere: the wing leading edges and nose cap.
Managers and engineers in Mission Control will review the data today and tomorrow to validate the thermal protection system's (TPS) integrity. The inspection is scheduled to take several hours.
Space shuttle Atlantis' crew completed today's inspection of the orbiter's thermal protection system at 9:30 a.m. CDT and stowed both the Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS) and Canadarm remote manipulator on the sills of Atlantis' payload bay.
"That may be the last time we put both of those big long arms away," commander Chris Ferguson said. "They have served us well."
The Canadian-built Canadarm remote manipulator, or shuttle robotic arm, was first used by pilot Dick Truly aboard Columbia on the second space shuttle mission in November 1981. Over the course of its 30 years, the shuttles' robot arms have grappled 72 payloads and deployed or retrieved seven satellites, including the retrieval and servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope.
They have assisted in 115 spacewalks, surveyed more than 1,000 feet of reinforced carbon-carbon since the return to flight after the February 2003 loss of Columbia and, with the International Space Station's Canadarm2, helped to construct the International Space Station with the delivery of 30 components.
"We are sorry to see them back in their cradles finally, but we are happy they were completed successfully," Ferguson said.
As Atlantis heads home, a last look at its liftoff
As space shuttle Atlantis headed for home and a Thursday landing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA debuted Tuesday its engineering highlight reel of various and spectacular camera views of the shuttle as it lifted off July 8 on its final mission to the International Space Station.