July 25, 2011
— Chris Ferguson almost forgot to leave it on board.
Caught up in the moment of having just landed the space shuttle, ending NASA's 30 year shuttle program after 135 missions, commander Ferguson followed his crew out of shuttle Atlantis and only then realized he'd forgotten about the plaque.
"If I was as clear thinking as I wish I was right after landing, I would have put it right on there but I had to have someone run back and pull it out of my saddlebag and put it on there for me," Ferguson said Friday (July 22), a day after landing, after his return home to Houston.
The small plaque, which was sized to fit perfectly over the center display screen in Atlantis' cockpit, was already a bit of an "afterthought" by the STS-135 crew, one devised with the help of the astronauts' simulator training team. Still it was the thought that counts.
"The inscription is from the heart," said Ferguson.
Atlantis' commander Chris Ferguson, attending his crew's July 22, 2011 Houston homecoming, displays a photo of the plaque.
"It was basically a tribute to the people who had worked on the space shuttle program since day one thanking them for their dedication," Ferguson told collectSPACE a few hours after landing, revealing the plaque's existence for the first time, "to let them know how much we thought about the work that they do, from the astronauts, from the people who get to operate the vehicle that they maintain."
"A lot of people think that the astronauts live in Florida and that we rub elbows with these folks every day. But we don't, we live far away and sometimes it is a little bit of an effort to get out here and give them the thanks and the praise they deserve," said Ferguson.
Keeping the dream alive
The blue plaque with its white writing, which was adorned with a gold-color rendition of the STS-135 crew's mission emblem, was inscribed as follows:
This plaque flew on the final Space Shuttle Mission in July, 2011. From the fortunate few who have served in space to the thousands who make spaceflight a reality, thank you for keeping the dream alive. Your passion for these amazing space ships will always stand as proof of what this country can do when it dares to be bold!
The plaque aboard Atlantis. (Twitter.com/@Astronut099)
The words repeated some of the same sentiments shared by Ferguson and his crewmates pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim from on orbit. Numerous times throughout the nearly two-week flight, the astronauts called down to Mission Control to give their thanks to the many people on the ground who made the shuttle program a success.
The plaque was also among the small stash of mementos that the astronauts flew on Atlantis to mark the shuttle's end. During the mission, the crew revealed banners that paid tribute to the shuttle workforce and to the city of Houston — presented after landing to the Kennedy Space Center and the mayor of Houston respectively — as well as placed a U.S. flag carried on the first shuttle mission in 1981 and a model of the shuttle autographed by program managers aboard the International Space Station.
Where the plaque stays, be it on Atlantis or somewhere else, will be up to those preparing the shuttle for its public display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
"We didn't want to make it permanent. We certainly didn't want to deface Atlantis. We wanted to leave it up to the ground processing crew to decide what to do with what we left behind," said Ferguson.
The first last inscription left on Atlantis
The STS-135 plaque was not the first time a crew had left a parting message aboard a spacecraft. In fact, it wasn't even the first time one was left on Atlantis.
In May 2010, the STS-132 crew affixed one of their flight emblems to a locker inside Atlantis and used a pen to add the inscription, "The first, last flight of Atlantis left Earth on 14 May 2010 from Pad 39A."
Inscription left by the "first, last crew" of space shuttle Atlantis after the STS-132 mission landed. (United Space Alliance)
At the time, STS-132 was to be the last flight of Atlantis, although the possibility that STS-135 be added to NASA's manifest was known, hence the "first, last flight" phrasing coined by the crew.
Unlike the STS-135 plaque however, the STS-132 crew didn't intend for their sign-off to be made public.
"We don't know where that came from," mission specialist Stephen Bowen teased when asked about the inscription by collectSPACE.
A shuttle technician found the crew's message soon after landing and a photo of it was spread across the internet.
Bowen also flew aboard shuttle Discovery's final mission, replacing a crew member who was injured prior to launch. He confirmed that that crew forewent the tribute.
"You really want to leave the vehicle in the condition that [it] existed so people can understand and see it once you put it on display in the format that it was," said Bowen. "The way we worked on it, the way the technicians put it together, the way the engineers saw it — so I really didn't want to leave anything there to really mar it in any way."
Shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 final crew also went without a plaque or inscription.
Inscription left by Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins inside the command module Columbia. (Smithsonian Institution)
Atlantis' STS-135 touchdown on July 21 came nearly 42 years to the day after the first known example of a crew's sign-off was applied to a U.S. spacecraft.
"Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 alias 'Columbia', The Best Ship to Come Down the Line. God Bless Her," wrote Columbia's command module pilot Michael Collins as the spacecraft, he, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were en route from their July 24, 1969, Pacific Ocean splashdown to Hawaii.