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T+ 1 year and counting: NASA's final space shuttle mission — where are they now?

Space shuttle Atlantis launches on the 135th and final mission of NASA's 30 year shuttle program, July 8, 2011. (collectSPACE)
July 9, 2012 — One year (and one day) after launching on NASA's final space shuttle mission, the orbiter Atlantis is parked today just a few miles from the launch pad where it lifted off on July 8, 2011.

No longer flight-worthy — its main engines replaced with replicas and its hazardous fuel lines removed — Atlantis is waiting inside a high bay in the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building to complete its transformation into a museum-safe display later this year.

This November, NASA plans to roll Atlantis, the last of its space-flown shuttles, down the road to the center's visitor complex, where a $100 million exhibition hall for Atlantis will open to tourists next summer.

Atlantis arrives in High Bay 4 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, June 29, 2012. (NASA/Jim Grossmann)
Like Atlantis and some of its parts, so too has dispersed the team that led STS-135, the final flight of the 30-year shuttle program. A year since working together to fly one last mission to resupply the International Space Station, the astronauts, Mission Control directors, and managers have since moved on to other missions, programs, and in some cases, other organizations.

The final four

Atlantis' four astronauts — commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim — stayed together as a crew for four months after flying the 13-day STS-135 mission from July 8 to July 21, 2011.

The STS-135 crew, from left, Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim, with space shuttle Atlantis rolling out to the launch pad behind them, June 1, 2011. (collectSPACE)
They toured NASA centers, spoke to the public about their mission, visited with President Obama in the White House and then finally, on Nov. 2, posed for photos together with the STS-1 crew, John Young and Bob Crippen.

"We're done," Ferguson said that day, following the photo shoot. "Everyone goes their separate ways right now."

For Ferguson, that meant separating from NASA. On Dec. 9, Ferguson announced he was leaving the space agency. He accepted a position with Boeing, overseeing the design and development of the crew systems for their potential shuttle replacement, a capsule the company is calling the Commercial Space Transportation, or CST, 100.

Boeing's CST-100 is among a small group of commercial spacecraft competing for a NASA contract to fly crews to and from the space station. NASA is expected to reveal its choices of vehicles later this month or next.

The four crew members of the Atlantis STS-135 mission pose for a picture on the spacecraft's flight deck, July 16, 2011. (NASA)
Among the astronauts who could someday fly aboard the CST-100, if Boeing is selected, are Ferguson's STS-135 crewmates, who are still with NASA. In the interim, they too are working to advance future spacecraft and missions from within the space agency.

Hurley is currently the assistant director for new programs under NASA's Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Walheim is the Astronaut Office's main liaison to the Orion program and is providing input from an astronaut's perspective into the design and testing of the NASA crew capsule being built to go out to the asteroids, the moon and ultimately, Mars.

Magnus, who prior to flying on Atlantis' final mission spent 134 days on the International Space Station, is supporting the station program and its on-going expeditions.

Atlantis, Mission Control

The STS-135 crew members were not the only astronauts working the final space shuttle mission. In addition to the crew's counterparts on board the space station, there were other astronauts heard each and every day of the shuttle flight — live from Mission Control.

Inside the space shuttle flight control room at the NASA Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center, astronaut Shannon Lucid is seen serving as STS-135 capcom, July 12, 2011. (NASA)
Since the first U.S. human spaceflight more than 50 years ago, astronauts have served as "capcom," or the capsule communicator — traditionally, the only person in Mission Control to talk to the crew in space. For STS-135, the four shuttle capcoms were Shannon Lucid, Megan McArthur, Stephen Robinson and Barry "Butch" Wilmore.

Lucid, who woke the STS-135 crew during their mission with a resounding "Good morning, Atlantis!," retired from NASA in January. A member of the first astronaut class to include women — as well as the first candidates chosen specifically to fly on the shuttle, Lucid flew five times to space herself, including a record-setting stay on board the Russian space station Mir.

Robinson, who served as the STS-135 lead capcom, just recently left NASA on June 30 to join the faculty at the University of California, Davis. In addition to serving as a professor, Robinson will lead in establishing the Center for Human-Vehicle Integration and Performance at UC Davis, intended to be a center of expertise for machine-enhanced human performance in hazardous environments, including during spaceflight.

McArthur and Wilmore are still in NASA's astronaut corps. McArthur (now Behnken) continues to serve as a capcom, recently coordinating with the space station's crew as they captured and berthed SpaceX's Dragon capsule, the first commercial spacecraft to ever visit the orbiting laboratory. Wilmore is in training to join a crew aboard the station.

STS-135 space shuttle flight directors, from left: Tony Ceccacci, Paul Dye, Kwatsi Alibaruho, Gary Horlacher, Rick LaBrode, and Richard Jones pose in Mission Control, July 6, 2011. (NASA)
The capcoms were responsible for conveying instructions from the mission's flight directors — STS-135 lead director Kwatsi Alibaruho, "Orbit 2" director Rick LaBrode, planning director Paul Dye, ascent director Richard Jones, (re)entry director Tony Ceccacci and "Team 4's" Gary Horlacher.

Alibaruho departed NASA a month after Atlantis landed to become an executive director for systems engineering at Hamilton Sunstrand, an aerospace contractor. LaBrode is now coordinating NASA's future exploration plans within the Mission Operations Directorate. Jones is preparing for NASA's first Orion test spaceflight in 2014. And Ceccacci, Dye, and Horlacher are still leading Mission Control, now as space station flight directors.

Mission managers

One other flight controller had responsibility over Atlantis up until the shuttle "cleared the tower." Launch director Michael Leinbach led the Launch Control Center (LCC) at Kennedy Space Center, the Florida equivalent to Mission Control in Houston.

Launch Director Mike Leinbach adjusts controls at his console in the Launch Control Center during the countdown to the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, July 8, 2011. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)
"On behalf of the greatest team in the world, good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of this true American icon," Leinbach radioed to Ferguson just as the countdown to the last shuttle mission entered its final minutes.

Leinbach's own departure from NASA came Nov. 30. Soon after, he joined United Launch Alliance (ULA), and is now leading the company's development of human spaceflight capabilities for their Atlas and Delta rockets.

Mike Moses, who oversaw Atlantis' assembly for STS-135 as the launch integration manager, is also now leading the oversight for a commercial launch vehicle. He was named Virgin Galactic's vice president of operations last October.

Founded by billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic is working toward flying privately-funded astronauts ("space tourists") and scientists on suborbital flights on board the Scaled Composites-designed SpaceShipTwo.

A year ago, Moses was also co-chairing Atlantis' Mission Management Team (MMT) with LeRoy Cain, then shuttle program deputy manager, who is now chairing the review team for Orion and NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket operations at the Kennedy Space Center.

STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson and pilot Doug Hurley are congratulated by space shuttle program manager John Shannon and deputy manager LeRoy Cain, on Atlantis' landing. (NASA)
A month after Atlantis landed, shuttle program manager John Shannon signed a letter that effectively brought the shuttle program to its end. He is now leading a review of where NASA will send its astronauts next, developing the potential missions that will take crews beyond where the shuttle was ever capable of flying.

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