Space Shuttle's Final Flight

Space Shuttle's Final Flight


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As the space shuttle program comes to a close, Endeavor makes its final landing on June 1, 2011. Commander Mark Kelly, who guided the shuttle to Earth, comments on the historic flight.


Final Touchdown

At a news conference after the landing, Michael D. Leinbach, the shuttle launching director, talked about the mixed emotions of the workers and NASA officials who had gathered on the runway.

“I saw grown men and grown women crying today,” Mr. Leinbach said. “Tears of joy, to be sure, and that was just human emotions came out on the runway today. You couldn’t suppress them.”

There was pride among the shuttle workers, Mr. Leinbach said, that even as the program was shutting down, they had maintained their high standards.

“Over the past three or four years, we’ve been concentrating on completing the job we were given to do,” he said. “We’ve done that now, successfully. We have a lot of pride in that, and no one can take that away from us.”

But jobs will be taken away. Although no NASA government employees have been laid off, the jobs of NASA contractors working in the shuttle program were cut deeply as the program wound down. Three years ago, 15,000 people worked at the Kennedy Space Center. As of Thursday, employment had fallen to 11,500. It is expected to drop soon to 8,200 before edging up to 10,000 in a few years as new NASA programs begin.

Hardest hit is United Space Alliance, the company that handled the maintenance of the shuttles and prepared each one for flight. It will lay off 46 percent of its 5,200 workers in the coming weeks. Nearly all of the 1,643 workers losing their jobs in Florida will be out the door on Friday, a company spokesman said.

“Landing,” said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, “really was a heck of a last day for them.”


Mission Complete, Houston

'UC Magazine' gains access to the final shuttle flight and to University of Cincinnati alumni with NASA careers

By Bob Egleston and John Bach

PHOTO GALLERY -- The Space Shuttle Program ended in the early morning of July 21, 2011, as the space shuttle Athlantis touched down at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Meanwhile, UC alumni throughout NASA were celebrating the achievements attained during the 30-year program. photo/NASA/Bill Ingalls

"After serving the world for more than 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it's come to a final stop."

Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson uttered those words at 5:57 a.m., July 21, 2011, on a steamy, pre-dawn Florida runway at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), signaling the end of the Space Shuttle Program and the latest chapter in America's quest for space. Though the mission had ended, NASA's chief flight director John McCullough, Eng '89, lingered inside the Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for another two and a half hours.

"We didn't want to log off the console," he bluntly admits. "None of us wanted to be the first one to leave."

For McCullough, who oversaw all aspects of flight control for the final 13 shuttle missions over the last three years, the vivid image of sitting at his console in the back of the room for the final flight will stay with him always.
"It really just sunk into me," he says. "It is almost like you are seeing the ghosts from the future looking back at that moment in time."

Atlantis blasts off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. photo/NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA's staff at Kennedy Space Center watched the shuttle's final flight just outside their window. photo/NASA/Bill Ingalls

An onboard camera captures the shuttle's image during flight. photo/NASA

University of Cincinnati alumnus John McCullough, chief flight director, stands behind the Mission Operation Directorate (MOD) console at Mission Control, Johnson Space Center, Houston. photo/NASA/Robert Markowitz

McCullough couldn't help but hearken back through the history of that very room -- a place he calls a "cathedral of spaceflight" -- to the day he watched Columbia explode in 2003 or to his many conversations there with Chris Kraft, NASA's first flight director for whom the building was named in 2011.

"When you hear someone like that talk about being in that room during Apollo 1 and seeing good men die, seeing men accomplish things beyond our wildest dreams like landing on the moon, it becomes bigger than you. It is something that's intangible. You don't just go in that room and not feel it. It is spiritual."

Still, despite the historic moment, during Atlantis' final bittersweet flight, it was business as usual, he says, with little time for personal reflection, even for the men and women who knew pink slips awaited them.

NASA's Space Shuttle Program was retired in 2011 after 135 missions. The program, which started in 1981, included five orbiters -- Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis.

Together, the ships carried more than 350 people into space. The shuttle was the world's first reusable space vehicle and consisted of three main components -- the reusable orbiter, two solid rocket boosters and the expendable external tank.

Tragedy struck the shuttle program twice, killing all seven crew members aboard each mission -- when the Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch in 1986 and when Columbia broke apart during re-entry in 2003.

In McCullough's office hangs a framed reminder "to always be aware that, suddenly and unexpectedly, we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences." That is the second principle of NASA's "Foundations of Mission Operations," which also notes, "We must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed."

"Space is a hazardous environment," McCullough reminds us. "It is a very unforgiving place. It is not a place people naturally thrive in.

Atlantis became the final space shuttle to blast off in July 2011, becoming the program's 135th mission. photo/NASA

"You are constantly fighting the elements. If your response isn't timely enough, the mission can fail. You have to deal with what you can't possibly be prepared for."

Few people have enjoyed a better view of NASA's storied shuttle program than McCullough, a UC aerospace engineering grad who has served at Houston's Johnson Space Center since 1992. Over the years, few of his experiences have compared to getting to inspect the shuttle with his own eyes.

"Prior to each launch, we would all go out to the vehicle on the pad and walk it down," he says. "I've been inside the vehicle. I've been at the base of it looking up.

"It is something that just overwhelms you when you are there. Thinking about the 10 million parts that have to work properly and how man can get together and overcome natural forces of gravity to achieve something like human spaceflight is still just amazing."

McCullough has worked more than 650 shifts in Mission Control as the flight director in charge, a responsibility that requires overseeing dozens of other flight directors who monitor every technical detail of shuttle and International Space Station missions. Flight controllers, he says, are forced to multitask and know literally everything about a particular system or aspect of the mission. "You have to focus on what's going on while having additional bandwidth in your head to pay attention to other things."

John McCullough (on left) at work during a mission.

For example, when disaster struck a 1996 shuttle mission, McCullough's quick thinking helped scientists salvage valuable data that otherwise would have been lost.

Astronauts had deployed a satellite from the shuttle on a 12-mile tether to gather information about electrical energy created while flying through the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere, the ionosphere. Unknown to anyone, a microscopic hole in the tether's insulation exposed it to an electrical arc, causing it to snap.

The crew began losing transmissions with the rapidly drifting satellite, when McCullough remembered that a NASA ground station was close by. He drove to the station and re-established contact with the satellite through a ground link, helping NASA obtain more telemetry before the satellite drifted out of range. In the end, scientists gathered enough data to begin to understand the ability of such a tether in generating electrical power.

Star-struck kid
As a child, McCullough was always fascinated by space -- from the Apollo moon landings, which impressed him, to science fiction, especially "Star Trek."

"Their vision of the future was compelling," he says of the USS Enterprise crew. "It was a noble thing the way they all worked together."

As a fourth-grader in 1973, he was captivated by the Comet Kohoutek, which made a near flyby to the earth. "I would dig in the backyard for meteorite fragments and moon rocks, then bring them to my parents.

"They were just rocks, but my mom never really said so. She had a great imagination and always encouraged me."

Space Shuttle Atlantis after "wheels stop" on July 21, 2011. photo/Bob Egleston

By fifth grade, he had made up his mind he wanted to be an aerospace engineer, taking an interest in planes and, of all things, orbital mechanics. Years later, when looking for a college, he knew UC was one of the nation's best, and the co-op program was a huge draw.

He paid his way through college working at Uno's Pizza and DuBois Book Store. He married his wife, Julie, A&S '87, while they were students, then dropped out for a year to work so she could finish school.

What impressed him most about UC was what happened when he decided to reenter the aerospace program. "The dean [Constantine Papadakis, MS (Eng) '70] sat down with me," he says. "He wrote a letter for my file stating that they should take me back with no questions. He cared about me as a person."

McCullough's introduction to the Johnson Space Center came during his first co-op assignment at McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. Having driven 23 hours straight from Cincinnati to Houston, he arrived around 9 p.m. and drove directly to the main gate of the space center to soak in a moment he had long dreamed about.

"It was dark when I arrived," he vividly recalls. "The fall air was crisp, and it was something how the space center was lit up."

At McDonnell Douglas, McCullough gained experience in shuttle-entry flight performance and ascent flight design. Later, on assignments with Douglas Aircraft in California, he worked on horizontal tail analysis for the MD80 jet aircraft.

After graduation, his co-op contributions translated into a full-time position with NASA, where he worked on shuttle simulators, giving astronauts hands-on experience prior to launches. He played a key role in upgrading the shuttle simulators to reflect changes in computer systems and software.

After getting certified, McCullough even flew the simulator, an experience he compares to an ultimate video game. From simulators, he moved on to flight control, which is where he has spent his career.

"You start out in a backroom experience doing minor things and learning the systems, then you work your way toward the front room, which is the one seen on TV. It is kind of like the major leagues of flight control. It is the big show, where you get to make an impact on the space program directly."

Though the shuttle program has now ended, McCullough's mission as NASA's chief flight director is nowhere near complete. He will continue to oversee operations in the International Space Station, which McCullough refers to as "a-million-ton spacecraft with 16 countries all working together for the common good."

Mission Control not only sends 30,000 commands to the space station a month, but also monitors the power, orbital altitude and systems that enable the crew to conduct experiments and perform other maintenance activities 24 hours a day.

Atlantis following its final touch down at Cape Canaveral. photo/Bob Egleston

UC alumnus Bob Egleston got to co-write his dream assignment when he attended the space shuttle's final launch and landing.

McCullough says NASA will still support four launches a year with its Russian partners, supply staggered crew changeouts and develop a new rocket design that will allow the U.S. to once again supply cargo and crew members directly to the station in the future.

He is sad to see the space shuttle program end, but is especially proud that his colleagues remained loyal to both the crew and the program until the end. The professionals at NASA, he says, wanted to be "the people that made a difference."

"Change is something that happens, and we all have to deal with it," he says. "But, boy, we were good, I'll tell ya. We were good. And we still are."

Bob Egleston, co-writer of this article and photography contributor, is a 1984 graduate of UC's School of Architecture and a senior project manager with Heery Design in Orlando. He is a space enthusiast and a freelance writer/photographer.


Why Did NASA Kill Off the Space Shuttle?

The final flight of NASA’s vaunted Space Shuttle Program was completed when Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011.

It was indeed an end of an era, as NASA’s space shuttles were unlike any other spacecraft built during the 30-year operation of the program. These spacecraft were unlike the much smaller capsules of NASA’s Apollo era, in which they were launched on the tips of rockets and then splashed back into the ocean.

These jetliner-like space shuttles used powerful boosters to streak into space, and then it was able to return to Earth’s solid ground as if it were a highly aerodynamic glider. When it touched down on the runway, it naturally brought to mind a commercial airplane.

While in orbit, these space shuttles circled our planet at about 17,500 miles an hour, allowing the crewmembers to see a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes.

However, all good things must come to an end. In 2004, seven years before the final space shuttle flight, President George W. Bush effectively put the final nail in the coffin when he announced that the space shuttles would be retired.

The three remaining orbiters and the prototype shuttle, Enterprise, are now housed in museums in California, Florida, New York and Virginia.

Although many have blamed budget restrictions on the program’s shutdown, NASA also sensed bigger challenges on the horizon, which meant developing a host of new groundbreaking technologies. For its next phase of manned space exploration, NASA is designing and building spacecraft that aim to send humans to the moon and Mars.

Moreover, NASA is fully aware of the rise and the important role that private companies like SpaceX will play in future human exploration of space. Therefore, the space agency has partnered with them to launch commercial vehicles to the International Space Station and perhaps beyond.

Although NASA’s Space Shuttle Program is no longer in operation, what can’t be taken away are the amazing history-changing moments it has given us.

For example, in 1983, space shuttle astronaut Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space as part of the Challenger crew. The April 1990 Discovery mission placed the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. And in 1995, the space shuttle Atlantis docked at the Russian space station Mir, bringing together Earth’s two great space programs.

The program also had to endure several tragedies, most notably the 1986 Challenger disaster that killed seven astronauts. Misfortune struck again in 2003 when Columbia disintegrated over Texas just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing, killing all seven crewmembers.

Outgoing shuttle program manager John Shannon took a moment to look back at the Space Shuttle Program during a 2011 ceremony marking the end of the NASA venture.

“I would like to take this moment to thank the team for all their hard work and dedication over 30 years that has led to a successful conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program,” he said.

“The shuttle program has built the largest space station in history, has revolutionized science with the Hubble Space Telescope and has inspired a generation to dream of space.”

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek and Arirang TV.


The decommissioned space shuttle Discovery rides piggy-back atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft on its April 17, 2012 flight to Washington Dulles International Airport before making its way to a permanent display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Virginia.

As part of its five-hour tour of California before making its final home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Endeavour swings by San Francisco&rsquos Golden Gate on Sept. 21, 2012.

(Photo by Carla Thomas, NASA)


Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster Transcript

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MMACS (Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm and Crew Systems Officer Jeff Kling): Flight, MMACS.

KLING: FYI I've just lost four separate temperature transducers on the left side of the vehicle, hydraulic return temperatures. (pause) Two of them on system one and one in each of systems 2 and 3.

CAIN: Four hyd return temps?

KLING: To the left outboard and left inboard elevons.

CAIN: OK, is there anything common to them, DSC or MDM or anything? I mean, you're telling me you lost them all at exactly the same time?

KLING: No, not exactly. They were within probably four or five seconds of each other.

CAIN: OK, where are those? Where is that instrumentation located?

KLING: All four of them are located in the aft part of the left wing, right in front of the elevons, elevon actuators. And there is no commonality.

CAIN: MMACS, tell me again which systems they are for.

KLING: That's all three hydraulic systems, it's, two of them are to the left outboard elevon and two of them to the left inboard

SARAFIN: Flight, Guidance, we're processing drag with good residual.

GC (Ground Control Bill Foster): Flight, GC.

FOSTER: Your air to grounds are enabled for the landing count.

CAIN: Thank you. GNC, Flight.

CAIN: Everything look good to you, control and rates and everything is nominal, right?

SARAFIN: Control's been stable through the rolls that we've done so far, Flight, we have good trims. I don't see anything out of the ordinary.

CAIN: All other indications for your hydraulic system indications are good?

KLING: They're all good, we've had good quantities all the way across.

CAIN: And the other temps are normal?

KLING: The other temps are normal, yes sir.

CAIN: And when you say you lost these, are you saying that they went to zero (illegible text) .

KLING: All four of them are offscale low.

KLING: And they were all staggered, they were, like I said, within several seconds of each other.

JONES: We have the balloon, it is being run through DDS right now.

KLING: We just lost tire pressure on left outboard and left inboard, both tires.

HOBAUGH: And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last.

CAIN, interrupting: Copy. Is it instrumentation, MMACS?

KLING: Flight, MMACS, those are also off, off- (illegible text)

COLUMBIA (Commander Rick Husband): ``Roger, buh.

INCO (Instrumentation and Communications Officer Laura Hoppe): Flight, INCO.

HOPPE: (illegible text) , just taking a few hits here, we're right up on top of the tail, not too bad.

CAIN: And there's no commonality between all these tire pressure instrumentations and the hydraulic return instrumentations?

KLING: No, sir, there's not. We've also lost the nose gear down talkback and the right main gear talkback.

CAIN: Nose gear and right main gear down talkbacks?

EECOM (Emergency, environmental and consumables operation manager Katie Rogers): And Flight, EECOM.

ROGERS: I've got four temperature sensors on the bottom line data that are offscale low.

HOPPE: Flight, INCO, I didn't expect this bad of a hit on comm.

CAIN: GC, how far are we from UHF, is that two-minute clock good?

FOSTER: Affirmative Flight.

SARAFIN: If we have any reason to suspect any sort of controllability issue I would keep the control cards handy on page four dash 13.

CAIN: INCO, we were rolled left, last data we had, and you weren't expecting a little bit of ratty comm, but not this long?

HOPPE: That's correct, Flight. I expected to be a little bit intermittent and this is pretty solid right here.

CAIN: No onboard system config changes right before we lost data?

HOPPE: That's correct, Flight, all looked good.

CAIN: Still all on string two and everything looked good?

HOPPE: String two looking good.

HOPPE: Two minutes to MILA. (Merritt Island tracking station.)

HOBAUGH: Columbia, Houston, comm check.

JONES: Closing end point with the one-hour balloon shows us touching down at 1496, 1,500 feet down the runway. Our crosswind right now is on the left, from the left, on the 33-end. (Referring to 33-end of runway.)

HOBAUGH: Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check.

JONES: Flight, I'd like to stay where we're at.

KLING: On the tire pressures, we did see them go erratic for a little bit before they went away, so I do believe it's instrumentation.

HOBAUGH: Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check.

JONES: I know this data is a little late. The one-hour balloon protects us for wind (illegible text)

HOBAUGH: Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check.

JONES: I think we're in a smaller wind persistence case than that. In other words, we shouldn't expect to have that big of a change. I'm comfortable with 1,500 feet down the runway.

FOSTER: MILA's not reporting any RF at this time. (radio frequency.)

HOPPE: Flight, INCO, SPC's (signal processor conditioners) just should have taken (illegible text) and low.

CAIN: FDO, when you expecting tracking?

JONES: One minute ago, Flight.

HOBAUGH: Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check.

HOBAUGH: Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check.

HOPPE: I could swap strings in the blind. (switch to backup communication system)

HOPPE: Flight, INCO, commanded string one in the blind.

HOPPE: I commanded string one in the blind, Flight.

FOSTER: (illegible text)

FOSTER: MILA's taking one of their antennas off into a search mode.

CAIN: Did we get, have we gotten any tracking data?

JONES: We got a blip of tracking data, it was a bad data point, Flight. Uh, we do not believe that was the orbiter. We are in a search pattern with our C-bands at this time. We do not have any valid data at this time.

CAIN: OK. Any other trackers that we can go to?

JONES: Let me start talking, Flight? I know we'll get it.

CAIN: Lock the doors. (Make sure no data enters or leaves the room. This is the first sign of a realization something was wrong)

CAIN: FDO, do you have any tracking.

MOD (Mission Operations Representative Phil Engelauf): Flight, MOD. On the flight loop.

JONES: My C-bands have not acquired anything, we are only acquiring false locks at this time.

CAIN: OK, all flight controllers on the flight loop, we need to kick off the FCOH (flight control operations handbook) contingency plan procedure. FCOH checklist, page two, point eight, dash five.

CAIN: FDO, Flight. FDO, Flight.

CAIN: Do you have any information or reports from Space Command?

CAIN: OK, and all flight controllers on page nine of the FCOH procedure. You need to make sure you step through the actions required in step 20. That's for your work station logs, display printouts, there's a whole list of data collection items that we need to make sure we log through.

CAIN: FDO, Flight. We need to take the equivalent of a command server, TSU checkpoint.

CAIN: We don't have the old DFC checkpoint, but we've got an equivalent capability that we need to do.

UNKNOWN: We'll get that done.

CAIN: You understand how to do the end of file log tapes that we need in the checklist.

CAIN: "And folks, listen up again on the flight loop, no, no phone calls off site, outside of this room, our discussions are on these loops on the recorded DVS (digital voice communications system) loops only. No data, no phone calls, no transmissions anywhere into or out."


Live The Story: David Shukman on the space shuttle's final flight

BBC Science Editor David Shukman describes what it was like to report on the shuttle's last launch.

"The atmosphere was really tense because this was the last flight of a space shuttle, so there was a lot of emotion amongst all the NASA people. Huge crowds had turned out. A lot of local people and tourists had gathered and there were about a million people in that part of Florida.

It was a very hot, sultry day. The atmosphere seemed to be made more electric because of the threat of storms out over the Atlantic.

We were gathered there with hundreds of media people, all wanting to be a witness to this moment of space history. My cameraman and I chose a spot that was clear of other people, with a nice view of the launch pad, across a swamp.

In the distance you see this enormous tower, like a scaffolding tower, and the white body of the space shuttle attached to the bright orange of the main fuel tank. A very distinctive sight, but three miles away. What I was very interested to try to capture for viewers was not just the sight, because actually we are all quite familiar with what it looks like, but what it feels like.

I had heard about the length of time it takes for the sound waves to reach you from the launch pad over three miles away. So, we got ready and there was the countdown. Then there was a silence and then suddenly there's this dazzling light that flashes at you from the base of the launch pad - and that's ignition.

Then there's a sound that starts to creep towards you a little bit later and you see the great structure rising past the launch pad and I knew at that, at roughly 20 seconds after the launch, the main waves of sound from the two solid rocket boosters, these great two long cylinders strapped to the side of the shuttle, that those would produce the most bone-shaking kind of sound and these waves of intense, deep crackling came rolling across the swamp towards me.

I had been warned that I would feel them inside and then I did. I mean it's one of things that is, stunning when it happens, that your insides do go jelly-like when these waves hit you and it was the most mesmerising experience.

The sound was deeper, louder, almost more violent than many things I have ever experienced before and a hush, obviously, fell over the crowds because everybody was just spellbound by this experience of feeling the sound and then watching the rocket just blasting off through the sky, getting lost in the clouds and then occasionally bursts of brilliant white light would come through a gap in the clouds and you knew that the shuttle was accelerating towards 17,000 miles an hour, the speed it needs to get to break free of earth's gravity and make it into orbit.

It was one of the most wonderful, uplifting experiences I have ever taken part in."

Who can report a story better than someone who lives it?

With journalists in more countries than any other international news broadcaster, we don't just report a story, we live it.


The Last Shuttle Flight

Inside the space station’s U.S. lab module, the four Atlantis astronauts should have been starting to gather, but they weren’t. Space shuttle commander Chris Ferguson kept eyeing his watch. “Everybody get in here! We’ve gotta be ready!” he yelled. It was the eighth day of the 135th and final space shuttle mission, and President Obama was scheduled for a televised call in just five minutes.

The shuttle astronauts and the six members of the station crew should have been milling in front of the camera, tucking in their shirts and straightening their hair. Instead, they were all still rushing around trying to finish their tasks.

At the last minute, the final person slipped into place—by now they were pros at this floating press conference formation—and the call went through. The president opened with a joke, and told the astronauts how proud he was of them and the shuttle workforce. He asked about a robotics experiment, then said: “I also understand that Atlantis brought a unique American flag up to the station?”

Ferguson gave a little start and his eyes widened. You can actually see it on the video. The flag! There were thousands of tiny American flags tucked into every crevice of the shuttle, souvenirs to be given out later, but the one the president referred to was special. The Atlantis crew had brought it up to the station to leave behind, so that some day, years from now, the next American spacecraft to dock there would be able to retrieve it. The symbolism was important to Ferguson, and he had planned to hold up the flag during the presidential phone call. But in all the commotion he forgot, and he had to settle for describing it instead.

Hardly a big deal, and only a few insiders would even have noticed. Besides, everything had gone pretty much perfectly on this flight so far. With only five days left—five days in the entire 30-year history of the shuttle program—he was finally starting to relax. He was lucky to be here. They all were.

In the unlikely event that their shuttle couldn’t return to Earth, the crew had to be ready to come home on a Russian Soyuz — and so had to be fitted for spacesuits. (NASA / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool) Rex Walheim (left) and Chris Ferguson in Russia, March 2011. Because all four astronauts were veterans, the compressed training for STS-135 left out or abridged some basic classroom work back in Houston. (NASA / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool) Walheim rehearses for a spacewalk he would only watch. (NASA / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool) Practicing in a shuttle mockup, with a virtual-reality view of the space station docking port overhead. (NASA / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool) Sandy Magnus steals a moment for sightseeing in the space station cupola, which wasn’t installed when she lived there in 2009. While her three Atlantis crewmates bunked on the shuttle, Magnus slept some nights on the station. (NASA) On day 12, the shuttle astronauts flew around the station to photograph it from an angle unseen by other crews. (NASA) Five tons of cargo, in number-coded bags. (NASA) The STS-135 crew took no souvenirs for themselves, but left a sign in Atlantis’s cockpit. (NASA) Back home, the astronauts went on an Apollo-style goodwill tour, with USO stops, an appearance on “The Colbert Report,” and miniature golf with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Hurley (arms raised) says of his crewmates, “We’ll be friends for life.” (NASA / Paul E. Alers) On the mission’s next-to-last day, after leaving the station, Atlantis released a tiny “picosat” whose cameras took the last photos of a shuttle orbiter in space. (The Aerospace Corporation)

WHEN THE last shuttle astronauts began training in the summer of 2010, there was no guarantee they’d get a chance to fly. The mission had originally been STS-335, a “launch on need” flight that would wait on the ground to rescue the crew of STS-134—the last scheduled flight—in case that vehicle was unable to return from the station. Since the 2003 Columbia accident, NASA had required this safeguard for every launch there was little likelihood that a rescue flight would be needed.

Behind the scenes, though, agency planners had long considered turning STS-335 into a real mission. With the shuttle retiring, new commercial companies like SpaceX were supposed to take over the job of supplying the station, but their launch schedules had been slipping badly, and NASA faced the possibility of a critical break in the logistics chain. One more shuttle flight—loaded with five tons of supplies—would buy some insurance.

In September 2009, Ferguson, as the new deputy chief of the astronaut office, had been asked to look at what it would take to pull off the additional supply mission from the perspective of crew training and safety. There were several concerns. First, this crew would have no rescue shuttle—NASA didn’t have the money and had no more usable external tanks. In the unlikely case that their orbiter, Atlantis, was disabled, the crew would have to stay on the station until smaller Russian Soyuz capsules could bring them home, one by one. The last person wouldn’t get back for more than a year.

After much study and an outside safety review, shuttle managers were satisfied that four people could pull off a last supply mission. Their training would have to be compressed, and their timeline would be packed. But it was doable. And the four astronauts could begin training before a final decision was made, because a rescue mission to the station had a lot in common with a supply mission one big difference was the number of astronauts riding the shuttle home.

Before he started working on the plan that would turn into STS-135, says Ferguson, “I thought the last flight had come and gone.” Now, by good fortune, another mission had materialized. His boss, chief astronaut Peggy Whitson, decided that Ferguson, a former Navy test pilot, was the logical person to command the crew of STS-335/STS-135. The pilot chosen was Doug Hurley, a Marine aviator who had returned from his first spaceflight in July 2009, and so had been through training recently. Like Ferguson, Hurley had expected to be on one of the last shuttles both had been disappointed to be bypassed.

The two mission specialist slots went to a couple of veterans: Rex Walheim, a former Air Force flight test engineer and head of the astronaut office’s spacewalking branch, and aerospace engineer Sandy Magnus, who in the summer of 2010 was detailed to NASA headquarters, working on future mission studies and hoping for another tour on the space station, having lived there for four months—and loved it—in 2008 and 2009. Training for the contingency mission meant giving up her place in line for another station assignment. But she told Whitson, “Use me where you need to use me.”

Less than a year later, on the morning of July 8, 2011, the four STS-135 astronauts lay on their backs on the flight deck of Atlantis, awaiting the launch. For the first time in 28 years, there were no astronauts sitting downstairs in the mid-deck.

At T-31 seconds, a voice came over the intercom talking about a failure, and a hold. The clock hadn’t stopped this late in the countdown for years. Ferguson turned to Hurley, in the seat to his right. “Did she say failure?” They looked at each other, and Ferguson grabbed his checklist. The launch controllers on the loop were using their own jargon, slinging acronyms the astronauts didn’t immediately recognize. “Even though the world thinks [the astronauts] know exactly what’s going on at all times with this vehicle, we don’t,” says Hurley. “So it took us a few seconds to figure out, Oh, they’re talking about the beanie cap,” a hood that sits atop the shuttle’s fuel tank and retracts just before launch.

The problem was minor, and in a minute or so, the count resumed. Recalling the incident now, Ferguson notes how efficiently the launch team assessed the situation, made their decision, and moved on, with only minutes left in a tight launch window. “That’s what 30 years of launching the same vehicle does for you,” he says. “You really understand a lot of little chinks in the armor.”

Even among the astronaut crews, there was institutional memory that helped them handle problems quickly. Shortly after liftoff, during the thunderous climb to orbit, a loud klaxon alarm sounded inside Atlantis, a warning that the cabin was leaking air. This particular scenario had never come up in training, and the astronauts began to make the mental switch from routine to emergency. Ferguson, though, had seen this happen before, on his first launch. As Atlantis ascended, its metal structure expanded—they called it “cabin stretch”—and the air inside the pressure vessel expanded too. To the sensors, it seemed like the air was getting thinner—a sign of a leak. From personal experience, Ferguson could assure the others it was harmless, an assessment the ground quickly confirmed. Two weeks later, during the landing, it would be Rex Walheim’s turn to calm his crewmates, when they heard a loud bang on the mid-deck below them. “Oh, that happened on my first flight too,” he told them. It was the toilet door slamming open as the shuttle hit atmospheric turbulence.

Once in orbit, the astronauts stowed their heavy orange launch suits, configured computers, and prepared Atlantis for orbital operations. This had always been a hectic time for shuttle crews, and on past flights, if a couple of the astronauts got space-sick, it was hard for even seven people to keep up with scheduled tasks. That was another benefit of flying only veterans. “Knowing full well that we didn’t have anybody who was going to be throwing up for the first three hours after we got to orbit was huge,” says Hurley.

After two days of playing orbital catch-up with the station, day 3 was docking day. Ferguson had steered a shuttle to the station before—patiently firing little thruster bursts with his hand controller, while keeping watch out the orbiter’s overhead and aft windows. It was slow work, and stressful. Rendezvous was “one of the times that the pucker factor is a little bit higher,” he says, “because you have to be in just the right spot, doing just the right things, or it will cost you an enormous amount of fuel, and embarrassment, to get back to where you really belong. There’s a lot of pressure to put the orbiter in just the right spot.” As Atlantis approached, the view out the window was even more beautiful than he’d remembered. The station, he says, is “the ultimate visual stimulation….an incredible, silvery-gold, living thing.” Atlantis docked as the two vehicles orbited 220 miles over the Pacific.

Waiting at the other end of the docking tunnel to greet the arrivals were Americans Mike Fossum and Ron Garan, Satoshi Furukawa of Japan, and Russians Andrei Borisenko, Aleksandr Samokutyayev, and Sergei Volkov. All had been living on the station for more than a month, and all would help—to varying degrees—unload the tons of supplies Atlantis brought.

Most of the cargo was packed inside a room-size cylindrical module—named Raffaello—that rested in the cargo bay of Atlantis. It held a year’s worth of food, clothes, water, spare parts, and supplies for future station astronauts, all carefully number-coded and packed in pallets or boxy, white fabric bags. Hurley and Magnus lifted the module with the station’s robot arm and attached it to a station docking port. Magnus, the loadmaster, was in charge of the move, which would go on for days.

First, though, came a spacewalk on day 5 to remove a failed pump from the outside of the station and place it in Atlantis’ cargo bay to be brought home. There was also a refueling experiment to install, and other maintenance tasks. Normally a spacewalk during docked operations would fall to the shuttle mission specialists, Walheim and Magnus. But there hadn’t been time to fit a spacewalk in the training, so the NASA planners had come up with something new: The station astronauts—Garan and Fossum—would go outside, and Walheim would help direct them from inside the shuttle.

That had made for an unusual, hybrid style of training. In the months leading up to their mission, Walheim, Garan, and Fossum practiced together underwater, working out each foothold and turn of the wrench that would be needed in orbit. Then, the two station astronauts had to launch, so Walheim continued training after they left. Now, reunited in orbit, the three stayed up late the night before the spacewalk to go over the updated procedures.

When the spacewalkers stepped outside, Walheim, inside Atlantis, felt like he was right alongside them, following every move for six and a half hours. “I sat there with all my cameras set up and my procedures where they needed to be,” he says. “I was ready to go.” When he couldn’t see the spacewalkers out the windows, he watched on the monitors, looking vicariously through their helmet cameras.

With the spacewalk finished, the astronauts turned their full attention to the cargo transfer. For the next three days they unpacked the moving van, each person carrying a container to its designated spot on the station, then returning with something else—a bag of trash, a piece of equipment from an earlier expedition—to be packed in Raffaello for the trip home. It was like two lines of ants, one coming, one going, all day for three days. “We were a machine, man,” says Magnus. Fossum set up a couple of speakers and put on his favorite band—ZZ Top—so they’d have something to listen to as they floated past one another.

As loadmaster, Magnus held the checklist, and the others would come to her if they couldn’t figure out from the codes where something went. Having lived on the space station herself, she knew the system. “The station guys have to go find it later,” she says, “so the ground has to know that food container number 17 went to the JLP, rack number two, station C on that rack.”

She delegated to Hurley the job of unloading and loading Atlantis’ mid-deck. That included the monotonous task of filling bags of water (a byproduct of the shuttle’s fuel cells) to leave behind on the station. “Doug, bless his heart, got stuck on the mid-deck doing that—for days,” Magnus says. “He would start a [water] fill, then wander off into the station to bring something from the shuttle.”

Often, says Ferguson, on past shuttle flights, the commander had assumed a “passive oversight role, and generally didn’t work that hard. I probably was in that category on my first flight as commander.” But on STS-135, he had to pitch in too. At one point, he volunteered for unwrapping duty. For years, the astronauts had argued that the people who packed the cargo on the ground used way too much packing material. They even wrapped towels in foam. The leftover packaging created a major trash problem on the space station, but the packers had their reasons, and the astronaut office never could persuade them to stop.

So Ferguson spent a good part of the space shuttle’s historic final mission unwrapping a load of Russian-made urine receptacles, one by one, so the station crew wouldn’t have to. “They had bubble-wrapped them,” Magnus sighs. “Individually. Fergie spent an hour or two un-bubble-wrapping them, saying, ‘We are not leaving that bubble wrap behind.’ ”

For the busiest part of the move, NASA had arranged with the Russian Space Agency to get help from the three cosmonauts on the station. Normally, the Russian crew members would have stayed on their side of the station during the work day, running their own experiments and following a separate timeline. Now they joined the moving crew. “We had all three of them at one point, coming and going,” says Magnus.

As usual during a shuttle visit to the station, the two crews tried to have dinner together when the schedule allowed. One night it was in the station’s U.S. lab, another night they ate in the Russian module, and on day 7 they crowded into Atlantis’ mid-deck for an “All-American meal” of chicken, baked beans, and apple pie, in honor of the shuttle’s retirement.

“Sasha [Samokutyayev] just loved the space shuttle,” says Ferguson. “He and Andrei [Borisenko] were over there all the time. It was kind of this pilot-to-pilot thing—they just had so many questions: What does this do, what does that do? Everybody’s very proud about the airplane or spaceship they fly, and we really did enjoy showing it off.” The cosmonauts presented the astronauts with a patch commemorating the shuttle’s last visit to the station. “Knowing how difficult it was for them to bring things up in the Soyuz, I was really impressed,” says Ferguson.

As Atlantis’ time at the station wound down, and the crew started to relax about getting the cargo transferred on schedule, the ceremonial moments became more frequent, the mood a bit more reflective. The STS-135 astronauts understood all along that theirs would be a high-profile mission, with lots of time devoted to press interviews. These live public affairs “events” were done from the station, which was better set up for video than the shuttle mid-deck. To all the local drive-time radio personalities asking Ferguson about his favorite baseball team (the Phillies), or Magnus about her zero-G hairdo, or Hurley whether he would miss the shuttle, their answers were considered, even thoughtful, as if they hadn’t just heard another reporter ask the exact same questions five minutes earlier. They all thought it was important to share this last flight with the public.

An even stronger desire was to honor the NASA workers who had trained them, or had built the shuttles or serviced them—an entire culture that after 30 years was about to disappear. This had been powerfully apparent during training. More than once, after a busy day of simulations or meetings at one NASA center or another, people had stopped them to say how proud they were to have worked on the vehicles. Many were about to lose their jobs. “I talked to one guy who had been with Atlantis since it was built in Palmdale [California, in the early 1980s],” says Hurley. “There were a hundred stories like that. We talked to people who said ‘I started working here at Kennedy when I was 18, and worked on every flight’, people who had emotionally, mentally, and personally devoted their lives to the space shuttle program.”

Each night of the mission as they were signing off, Ferguson and his crewmates made an effort to thank the people in mission control—by name if possible. They recorded messages to be played later at retirement parties. One night a request came up to record something for the family of a long-time shuttle engineer who had just passed away. They found the time.

During the busy days on the station, there hadn’t been much chance for reflection, but now that the end was near, the shuttle crew felt it in different ways, and at different times. For Walheim, it happened while they were undocking. As the shuttle pulled away from the station, Ron Garan’s voice came over the radio: “Space shuttle Atlantis, departing for the last time.” At that point, says Walheim, “I was back from the window, toward the floor, kind of by myself, with nothing to do for a couple of seconds. It just kind of got me choked up.”

Now, with just the four of them back in the shuttle, there was one last major task to check off before coming home. NASA engineers wanted documentary pictures of the station taken from a vantage point never seen by other shuttles. So with Atlantis backed off to a safe distance, the station was commanded to turn 90 degrees. It rotated slowly to the shuttle astronauts the motion was like watching the hour hand of a clock. Then Hurley flew a half lap around the station, up and over the solar arrays, so they could take pictures and video. The maneuver, said NASA flight directors, went “absolutely perfectly, by the numbers.” That’s what the press was told.

Inside Atlantis, “to be honest, it was a little chaotic,” says Walheim. Once the station turned from its normal orientation, the shuttle’s autopilot system lost its lock on reflectors attached to the station’s exterior, which were needed to get range data. Hurley, who was piloting, and Ferguson, who was assisting him, couldn’t tell exactly how far they were from the station. They were supposed to maintain a strict 600-foot distance to prevent the orbiter’s thruster plume from hitting the solar arrays. Walheim grabbed a handheld laser rangefinder, like a highway cop’s radar gun. He couldn’t hit the reflectors either. Each time he failed to get a lock, there was a “nasty buzzing tone. Everybody can hear it, and you’re thinking, Oh crap!”

Ferguson started to worry they might drift inside the 600-foot bubble. He laughs about it now. “I think my voice raised up an octave or two: Rex, I need a mark now! He was like Scotty from Star Trek: The dilithium crystals, Captain—I’m doing my best! And he was!” Finally, the rangefinder got a lock, and they managed the flyaround without penetrating the bubble. But they never did get video—they couldn’t get the camera set up properly.

THE NIGHT before landing, Ferguson was alone on the flight deck. He had just signed off with mission control for the evening, the last such sign-off in space shuttle history. It was July 20, which happened to be the anniversary of the first lunar landing, and Ferguson, knowing the world might be listening, had said to the ground controllers: “Forty-two years ago today, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I consider myself fortunate that I was [alive] to actually remember the event. I think there are probably a lot of folks in that room who didn’t have that privilege. And I can only hope that day will come for them, too, someday.”

Like many astronauts, Ferguson is frustrated that since 1969, space exploration has proceeded so slowly. During STS-135, he and his crewmates tried to explain, in practically every interview they did, that no, just because the shuttle was retiring, the space program wasn’t ending. But, he admits, “I don’t think the [political] waters have ever been muddier than they are now. And I think it’s going to take a couple of years for people to understand what we’re trying to do.”

What NASA is doing, in fact—in partnership with private companies—is building new spaceships, even though it’s uncertain where they’ll be sent. The crew of STS-135 is playing no small part in this new enterprise. Ferguson works for Boeing now, as the head of crew operations for the company’s commercial spacecraft program. Walheim is the astronaut office’s point person for the Orion capsule, which will be the first NASA vehicle to leave Earth orbit in more than 40 years. Hurley is the astronaut office liaison with other new commercial spaceship projects. Magnus left NASA in October to become executive director of an aerospace professional society.

But on the night of July 20, 2011, they were still a space shuttle crew, with just a few hours left in orbit. After Ferguson signed off with mission control, the other three joined him on the flight deck. Everything was packed away for reentry, and for the first time in 12 days, there was nothing left to do. For more than an hour, nearly a full orbit, they sat together with the lights off, talking quietly, basking in the moment, with Earth sparkling outside the windows. They saw thunderstorms flashing in the clouds below, the aurora shimmering as they passed over southern latitudes. “There’s so much your senses take in, the vividness of seeing the Earth, hearing the reaction jets fire,” says Hurley. “I remember feeling all was right with the world. You kind of want to bottle that up. Because if you felt like that every day, you’d be doing all right.”

The next morning, things happened fast. Shortly before 5 a.m. Florida time, Atlantis’ engines fired in the direction of its orbital motion to slow the vehicle and begin the descent to Earth. As often happens, the crew scrambled to get in their seats, and Walheim, the last to strap in, was still putting on his helmet as the fiery plasma light show started outside the windows. Sixty-eight minutes after initiating their de-orbit burn, they touched down in darkness at Cape Canaveral. A plaque now marks the spot on the runway where Atlantis’s wheels stopped.

While Ferguson, Hurley, and Walheim were busy shutting down the orbiter systems, they could hear the ground crews outside, starting to safe the vehicle, just as they’d done many times before. Magnus sat there in her lumpy orange suit, rolling her head from side to side, trying to get her neurovestibular system accustomed to gravity again. “I don’t think anyone heard me,” she recalls, “but I said something like, ‘Wow, it’s over.’ ”

Then they all stood up, piled into the Astrovan, and headed out to greet the crowd.


Space Shuttle Atlantis Makes Historic Final Landing, Ends 30-Year Program

NASA Shuttle Program: 135 flights and 335 astronauts in 30 years.

Space Shuttle Program: End of an Era

July 21, 2011— -- For one last time, the Space Shuttle Atlantis made a long, steep turn, lined up with the runway and landed in the half-light before dawn at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"After serving the world for 30 years, the space shuttle has found its place in history," said Christopher Ferguson, the astronaut who commanded Atlantis' final mission, by radio to mission control. "Wheels stop." The ship came to rest at 5:58 a.m. EDT, after a flight of 12 days, 18 hours, 28 minutes and 55 seconds.

After 135 flights in 30 years, the space shuttles are now history. NASA said before landing that with Atlantis' flight over, the five shuttle orbiters would together have traveled 537,114,016 miles in orbit. Three hundred and thirty-five astronauts have flown on them 14 died when the shuttles Columbia and Challenger were lost.

Atlantis alone made 33 flights, carried 191 space fliers, spent 307 days in orbit, circled Earth 4,848 times and put 125,935,769 miles on its odometer.

Now, for America's human spaceflight program, comes a period of retrenchment and doubt. With Atlantis is safely on the ground today, 2,300 shuttle workers are scheduled to get layoff notices this week. More than 15,000 people worked for NASA or its contractors on the shuttle program 8,000 of those jobs will be lost.

NASA's space program is hardly over astronauts will continue to live for months at a time on the International Space Station until at least 2020. Eventually, the Obama administration proposes they go explore a passing asteroid, and ultimately land on Mars.

An ambitious probe to orbit Jupiter is on the launch pad, scheduled for an August launch. A new Mars rover, called Curiosity, is scheduled to leave in November NASA says it would announce Friday where on the Martian surface Curiosity would try to land.

But for now the one way for Americans to reach orbit will be by hitching seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. NASA says that in a few years the job will be taken over by private companies such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada or Boeing. Each has a spacecraft and launcher in the works, though so far, only governments have ever launched people into orbit.

And as for the shuttles? The three surviving orbiters now become museum pieces. Atlantis will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center visitors' center. Its seniormost sister ship, Discovery, goes to the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia outside Washington. Endeavour will be sent to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

It is a quiet ending to a program that, in many eyes, never could live up to the promises made when it was conceived in the early 1970s. It was supposed to make spaceflight affordable, safe and routine. Instead, it proved risky and expensive. Flights have been estimated to cost about half a billion dollars each.

"But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it," said former shuttle astronaut Duane Carey in an interview with The Associated Press. "What matters is that we strived mightily to do so -- and we did strive mightily. The main legacy left by the shuttle program is that of a magnificent failure."

Before flight, Atlantis' commander Ferguson was asked about the prospect of eventually of going to Mars.

"We have the capability," he said. "We could go there today if our pockets didn't have a bottom to them. But unfortunately they do, and we answer to economic pressure. And that will keep us where we are for a while."


Historical Snapshot

The Space Shuttle Orbiter became a Boeing program in 1996, when the company purchased Rockwell International's aerospace and defense assets. The Orbiter&mdashthe world&rsquos first reusable spacecraft&mdashsupported humanity&rsquos most challenging engineering project, the International Space Station (ISS). It launched, recovered and repaired satellites and hosted more than 2,000 scientific experiments. During its 30 years of service, 355 people from 16 countries flew 852 times aboard the shuttles.

On July 26, 1972, North American Rockwell (which became Rockwell International in 1973) won a $2.6 billion contract to build the Space Shuttle Orbiter, designated OV-101 (orbiter vehicle 101). The first test shuttle, the Enterprise, rolled out Sept. 17, 1976. From Jan. 31 to Oct. 26, 1977, it used a Boeing 747, modified as a shuttle carrier aircraft, to take it to the upper atmosphere for the approach and landing test program. The tests showed that the Orbiter could fly in the atmosphere and land like an airplane.

The Enterprise remained a test article. Its legacy of information was incorporated into the next shuttle, the Columbia (OV-102). On April 12, 1981, the Columbia was the first Space Shuttle to fly into orbit. During its 27 flights between 1981 and 2002, the Columbia's achievements included the first launch of satellites from a Space Shuttle, the first flight of the European-built scientific workshop called Spacelab and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. The Columbia and its seven astronauts were lost Feb. 1, 2003, when the vehicle broke up over Texas during reentry from orbit. The program was then suspended until Space Shuttle Discovery returned to flight on July 28, 2005.

The Challenger (OV-99) was the second Orbiter to become operational at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It joined the NASA fleet in July 1982, flew nine successful missions, made 987 orbits and spent 69 days in space. Then on Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger and its seven-member crew were lost 73 seconds after launch.

The third shuttle, the Discovery (OV 103), had arrived at Kennedy Space Center in November 1983. On its first mission, on Aug. 30, 1984, it deployed three communications satellites. After modifications, it flew the first Space Shuttle mission of the post-Challenger era on Sept. 29, 1988. On March 9, 2011, it touched down after its final flight.

The Atlantis (OV-104) made its first orbital flight Oct. 3, 1985. During its second flight, Nov. 26, 1985, its astronaut crew conducted the first experiments for assembling structures in space. It was modified and returned into orbit Dec. 2, 1988. The May 19, 2000, launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis introduced a host of enhancements, including an adaptation of the glass cockpit system used in the Boeing 777. The Space Shuttle used Ku-band radar, built by Boeing Satellite Systems, to communicate with the ground. The radar function can pinpoint objects in space as far away as 345 miles (555 kilometers) for shuttle rendezvous. By linking with a NASA satellite, the communications function allowed crews to transmit television-like pictures, voice messages and high-speed data streams.

The next shuttle, the Endeavour (OV-105), made its first flight, May 7, 1992. Its final mission lasted from May 16, to June 1, 2011. The final Space Shuttle mission ended soon after, on July 21, 2011, when the Atlantis rolled to a stop at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

In 1996, Boeing and Lockheed Martin created the standalone company United Space Alliance (USA). USA served as NASA's primary industry partner in human space operations for the day-to-day management of the Space Shuttle fleet and the planning, training and operations for 55 Space Shuttle missions.

As the major subcontractor to USA, Boeing integrated shuttle system elements and payloads it also provided operations support services and ongoing engineering support. Since 1987, Boeing had already been the prime contractor to SPACEHAB Inc. for design, maintenance, integration and operation of pressurized, habitable modules that were carried in the payload bay of the Space Shuttle to facilitate logistics delivery and science research.

The Atlantis is on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Cape Canaveral, Fla. the Endeavour can be seen at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.


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