Prototype shuttle moves aboard the Intrepid

The space shuttle Enterprise is hoisted by crane onto the flight deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Wednesday, June 6, 2012 in New York. The Enterprise never went on an actual space mission; it was a full-scale test vehicle used for flights in the atmosphere and experiments on the ground. It comes to New York as part of NASA's decision to end the shuttle program after 30 years. It is scheduled to open to the public in mid-July. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

New Yorkers lined the West Side waterfront to welcome the space shuttle Enterprise as it sailed up the Hudson River on Wednesday to its new home aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

The prototype space shuttle rode a barge from Jersey City, N.J. to the Intrepid, where it was hoisted by crane onto the flight deck.

A flotilla of vessels including a police boat, a Fire Department boat and a yellow taxi boat accompanied the Enterprise as it sailed past the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center site and other Manhattan landmarks en route to the Intrepid at midtown.

“I’ve never seen a space shuttle, and I’m looking at one,” said Thomas Hoffler, 69, who described himself as homeless. “I’m just spellbound.”

Fashion photographer Stewart Shining, 47, said his young nephews in California had emailed him to ask if he could see the Enterprise.

“I just walked over and had a peep and took some pictures,” he said.

Multimedia producer Tara Gore also took a break from work to watch the shuttle.

“There’s so much going on in New York that you can walk out of your office and see the space shuttle floating by,” she said.

The Enterprise’s original move-in date was Tuesday. Organizers said Monday that bad weather had delayed preparation work.

The shuttle was towed to New Jersey from Kennedy Airport on Sunday.

A spokeswoman for the Intrepid said the shuttle’s wingtip sustained light cosmetic damage during the Sunday trip when a gust of wind caused it to graze a wood piling.

The Enterprise never went on an actual space mission; it was a full-scale test vehicle used for flights in the atmosphere and experiments on the ground.

It comes to New York as part of NASA’s decision to end the shuttle program after 30 years. It is scheduled to open to the public in mid-July.

Many who watched the shuttle’s passage up the Hudson posted photos on Twitter.

Maricel Presilla, a food writer, tweeted: “WOW. Space shuttle passes by the Hudson on its way to Intrepid. Big deal to see it on the water.”


Reported by KAREN MATTHEWS of the Associated Press from NEW YORK, N.Y.

The space shuttle Enterprise passes the Statue of Liberty as it makes the final leg of its journey, by barge, to its new Manhattan home on the flight deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Wednesday, June 6, 2012. The U.S. space agency, NASA, ended its shuttle program last year. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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All done: The last shuttle comes home

Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, July 21, 2011. The landing of Atlantis brings the space shuttle program to an end. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The space shuttle passed into history Thursday, the words “wheels stop” crackling over the cockpit radio for the very last time.

In an almost anticlimactic end to the 30-year-old program, Atlantis and its four astronauts glided to a ghostly landing in near-darkness after one last visit to the International Space Station, completing the 135th and final shuttle flight.

It was a moment of both triumph and melancholy.

“I saw grown men and grown women crying today — tears of joy to be sure,” said launch director Mike Leinbach. “Human emotions came out on the runway today, and you couldn’t suppress them.”

Grace Calhoun, 16, of Nashville, front, screams with joy while watching the Space Shuttle Atlantis land at Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center at U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala, Thursday, July 21, 2011. The Atlantis landing marked the end of the space shuttle program. (AP Photo/The Huntsville Times, Eric Schultz)

Now the spaceship and the two other surviving shuttles will become museum pieces, like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules and the Wright brothers’ flying machine before them. NASA astronauts, a dwindling breed, will have to hitch rides to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz capsules for at least three to five years. And thousands more shuttle workers will lose their jobs, beginning with a round of layoffs on Friday.

The spaceship’s return was witnessed at the Kennedy Space Center and Houston’s Johnson Space Center by a relatively small crowd, mostly of NASA family and friends, compared with the 1 million who watched Atlantis lift off on July 8.

In Houston, flight director Tony Ceccacci, who presided over Atlantis’ safe return, choked up while signing off from Mission Control for the final time.

“The work done in this room, in this building, will never again be duplicated,” he told his team before the doors opened and the center filled with dozens of past and present flight controllers.

Shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew seized every opportunity to thank the thousands of workers who got them safely to and from orbit and guided them through the 13-day flight.

“After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle’s earned its place in history. And it’s come to a final stop,” he radioed after Atlantis touched down just before dawn.

“We copy your wheels stop,” Mission Control replied. “Job well done, America.”

NASA is getting out of the business of sending cargo and astronauts to the space station, outsourcing the job to private companies.

The first privately operated supply run is expected later this year. But it will be an unmanned flight. It could be several years before private companies fly astronauts to the space station, which is expected to carry on for at least another decade. In the meantime, NASA will rely on the Russians for rides.

The longer-term future for American space exploration is hazy, a huge concern for many at NASA. President Barack Obama has set a goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the mid-2030s. But the space agency has yet to even settle on a rocket design.

Space shuttle Atlantis is towed to the Orbitor Processing facility for decommissioning as hundreds of NASA employees gather at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, July 21, 2011. The landing of Atlantis marks the end of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Thursday, though, belonged to Atlantis and its crew: Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, who during their mission delivered a year’s worth of food and other supplies to the space station and took out the trash.

They were greeted with cheers, whistles and shouts by 2,000 people who gathered near the landing strip — astronauts’ families and friends, as well as shuttle managers and NASA brass. Ferguson and his crew were later swarmed on the runway by well-wishers.

Bringing the shuttle home in the dark was not exactly a dramatic way to end the program. NASA actually had two landing opportunities Thursday morning — one before daybreak, the other 90 minutes, or one orbit, later, both of them dictated by the day and time of launch and the length of the mission. But NASA always prefers to use the first available landing opportunity because the weather in Florida can deteriorate rapidly. And the space agency had no intention of departing from that practice merely for a better photo op.

As a thank-you to workers — especially those losing their jobs — NASA parked Atlantis outside its hangar for several hours so employees could gather round and say goodbye. Close to 1,000 stood in the midday heat, waving American flags and paper fans and photographing the shuttle.

Angie Buffaloe wept. Three colleagues in her engineering office will lose their jobs Friday.

“I spend more time with these guys than I do with my family,” said Buffaloe, a 22-year space center worker. “We’ve been through everything: divorce, sick children, grandchildren. They’ve been there. We’ve shared life together … and now their last day is today.”

As of Thursday, the Kennedy Space Center work force numbered 11,500, down from a shuttle-era peak of 18,000 in 1992. Between 1,500 and 1,800 layoffs are coming Friday, and 2,000 more are expected in the coming weeks and months.

“I want them to stick their chests out proudly to say that they were a part of the most incredible era in American spaceflight, in anybody’s spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., a former shuttle commander, told reporters on the runway.

The shuttle was NASA’s longest-running space exploration program, making its inaugural flight in 1981.

Shuttles launched the Hubble Space Telescope and fixed its blurry vision; built the space station, the world’s largest orbiting structure; and opened the final frontier to women, minorities, schoolteachers, even a prince. The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, became the oldest person ever in space, thanks to the shuttle. He was 77 at the time; he turned 90 this week.

Two of the five shuttles — Challenger and Columbia — were destroyed, one at launch, the other during the ride home. Fourteen lives were lost.

Altogether, the shuttle fleet flew 542 million miles, circled Earth 21,152 times, carried 355 people from 16 countries and spent a combined 1,333 days in space — nearly four years.

The decision to retire the shuttle and focus on venturing farther into space was made seven years ago under President George W. Bush.

An American flag that flew on the first shuttle flight and returned to orbit aboard Atlantis was left behind at the space station. The first company to get astronauts there from U.S. soil will claim the flag as a prize.

In the meantime, Atlantis will go on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex in 2013. Space shuttle Discovery is headed for a Smithsonian Institution hangar in Virginia. And Endeavour is bound for the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Said Ferguson: “I want that picture of a young 6-year-old boy looking up at a space shuttle in a museum and saying, ‘Daddy, I want to do something like that when I grow up.’”


Reported by MARCIA DUNN of the Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. AP writers Mike Schneider at Cape Canaveral and Seth Borenstein in Houston contributed to this report.




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Almost time for shuttle to come home

On the eve of NASA’s historic, wheel-stopping end to the shuttle program, the four astronauts making the final journey completed one last task.

This image provided by NASA shows a view of the space shuttle Atlantis while still docked with the International Space Station taken by crew member Mike Fossum aboard the station Monday July 18, 2011. The robotic arm on the shuttle appears to be saluting "good-bye" to the station. Earth's airglow is seen as a thin line above Earth's horizon. The Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, full of items to be returned to Earth, is seen in the aft cargo bay. (AP Photo/NASA - Mike Fossum)

One more: They released the very last satellite to be launched from a space shuttle. It popped out of a can Wednesday: a little 8-pound box covered with experimental solar cells.

Over the three decades of the shuttle era, 180 satellites and other spacecraft have been deployed by the entire fleet —- from tiny ones like Wednesday’s PicoSat to mega-ton whoppers like the Hubble Space Telescope.

Thanks: As soon as the mini-satellite was on its way, astronaut Rex Walheim read a poem that he wrote to mark the occasion. It was the first of many tributes planned over the next few days; on Wednesday evening, the Empire State Building in New York was going to light up in red, white and blue in honor of the space shuttle program.

Walheim read: “One more satellite takes its place in the sky, / the last of many that the shuttle let fly. / Magellan, Galileo, Hubble and more / have sailed beyond her payload bay doors. / They’ve filled science books and still more to come. / The shuttle’s legacy will live on when her flying is done.”

Flight controllers applauded back in Houston.

On this last full day of this last mission, shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson told the controllers, “I’d love to have each and every one of you to stand up and take a bow, a round of applause. Then there would be no one to applaud and there would be nobody to watching the vehicle … but believe me, our hearts go out to you.”

Coming home soon: Ferguson and his three crewmates checked their critical flight systems for Thursday’s planned 5:56 a.m. landing at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, not quite an hour before sunrise. Everything worked perfectly. Excellent weather was forecast to wind up the 135th flight of the space shuttle program.

The astronauts and the flight controllers who will guide them home said Wednesday they were starting to feel a rush of emotions.

“It’s going to be tough,” Ferguson said in a series of TV interviews. “It’s going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years. But we’re going to try to keep it upbeat.”

Flight director Tony Ceccacci, who was slated to preside over Atlantis’ return to Earth, refrained from publicly sharing his sentiments—until Wednesday.

“You guys must know that we do have a motto in the Mission Control Center that flight controllers don’t cry,” Ceccacci told reporters. “So we’re going to make sure we keep that.”

Atlantis departed the International Space Station on Tuesday, after restocking it with a year’s worth of supplies. Among the shuttle highlights noted Wednesday was the construction of the station, a nearly 1 million-pound science outpost that took 12 1/2 years and 37 shuttle flights to build.

Twitter photo: Space station astronaut Michael Fossum posted on Twitter a photo of the shuttle docked to the station 250 miles above the blue planet, which he snapped during last week’s spacewalk. He noted in the tweet: “When will such beautiful ship dock again to ISS?”

NASA already is shifting gears.

It’s working with private companies eager to take over cargo runs and astronaut flights to the space station. The first supply trip is expected to take place by the end of this year. Astronaut trips will take more time to put together, at least three to five years.

The long-term destination is true outer space: sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars the following decade. That’s the plan put forth by President Barack Obama. His predecessor wanted moon as the prize.

Throughout their 13-day mission and again Wednesday, the Atlantis astronauts stressed the need for a decades-long space exploration plan that does not change with each incoming president.

Ceccacci, whose Mission Control experience dates back to the first shuttle flight in 1981, said it’s “tough” to think about all the experience that will be walking out the door following this mission. Thousands of layoffs are looming at the various NASA centers; about 2,000 shuttle workers at Kennedy alone will get pink slips starting Friday. That’s on top of massive cutbacks already made.

“We know there’s going to be a rough spot for a while,” Ceccacci said. “But we hope that when we do get a good plan, a good direction, a good mission, that we can come back in here and do what we’ve been doing for the past 30 years for the shuttle and the years before that with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.”

Once Atlantis is safely back on Earth, Ceccacci planned to read a speech to his Houston flight control team and gather them around to watch the crew walk around the last shuttle one last time—so the controllers can “soak it in … and congratulate each other on a job well done.”

Atlantis is the last of the shuttles to be retired. It will remain at Kennedy Space Center, eventually going on public display at the visitors complex. Discovery is bound for the Smithsonian Institution in suburban Washington, and Endeavour for the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Reported by MARCIA DUNN of the Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.



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Astronauts fix another faulty computer

The pilots on NASA’s last space shuttle flight fixed another one of their main computers Friday after it failed and set off an alarm that awoke the entire crew.

This image provided by NASA was photographed during a July 12 spacewalk, shows the International Space Station's Cupola, backdropped against black space, a horizon scene and various components of the orbiting outpost, including the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module, right, along with two "parked" Russian spacecraft -- a Soyuz and a progress supply ship. Node 3 or Tranquility (on which the Cupola is mounted) is just out of frame, bottom. After getting a little free time Thursday July 13, 2011, the last space shuttle crew was woken up to deal with a second computer failure on Atlantis. (AP Photo/NASA)

Atlantis’ commander, Christopher Ferguson, said the alarm sounded an hour or so after the four astronauts had gone to bed, during the deepest part of their sleep.

“We all woke up and looked at one another, and we were wondering really what was going on,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday morning. The astronauts rushed to the flight deck and switched to a backup computer. Within a half-hour they were back in bed.

It was the second such failure of their space station delivery mission. Just before docking to the International Space Station on Sunday, another of the five main shuttle computers conked out. New software loads took care of both problems, although engineers were still trying to figure out why the trouble occurred in the first place.

The five computers are critical for a space shuttle’s return to Earth. Atlantis will make the last journey home of the 30-year space shuttle era next Thursday.

“We’re doing well here,” Ferguson told the AP, “and I’m confident everything’s going to look good when we undock in a couple days.”

Ferguson and his co-pilot, Douglas Hurley, said they’re still too busy moving items back and forth between the linked Atlantis and space station to dwell on the looming end of the shuttle program.

The topic came up at Thursday’s special all-American dinner of grilled chicken, barbecued beef, baked beans, corn and Hostess apple pie. Ferguson said he told the nine other space fliers, “Hey, you know, this is the last joint meal that we’re ever going to have aboard a space shuttle.”

“It’s a little bit of a sobering, somber moment,” Ferguson said. “But at the same time, we’re extremely fortunate to have had 37 missions, I think, to the International Space Station now, so we’re very lucky to have done this.”

Ferguson said his most memorable moment of the 13-day mission, so far, occurred just before last weekend’s docking by Atlantis. He was at the shuttle controls and Atlantis was hovering just several hundred feet away from “this incredibly mammoth space station.”

“It’s just a feeling of awe, and you’re humbled by what humans can create when they work together to do things in space,” he said. “It’s an incredibly memorable moment and I will never, ever, ever duplicate it or forget it.”

Seared into Hurley’s mind are the faces of the two astronauts who were outside, just a few feet away, as he operated the robot arm during Tuesday’s spacewalk, the last one of the shuttle program.

“It really seemed like it was out of a science fiction movie,” he said. “You could see the expression on their faces.”

Another highlight for Hurley he said he’ll keep with him: seeing an “incredible” aurora australis, or southern lights, on Thursday night.

As their time at the space station wound down, the shuttle crew got another celebrity call Friday, this time from musician Paul McCartney.

“Good luck on this, your last mission. Well done,” McCartney said in a prerecorded message. The wake-up music was “Good Day Sunshine” by the Beatles. The previous two days, Elton John and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe sent greetings.

Early Friday afternoon, a live VIP call was scheduled—from the Oval Office.

President Barack Obama planned to call the four shuttle fliers and six station residents. His plan for U.S. space exploration after the shuttles is to put orbital launches in the hands of private companies, and get NASA working on human expeditions to an asteroid and Mars.



Reported by MARCIA DUNN of the Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.

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Astronauts on trash duty

In this Monday, July 11, 2011 picture made available by NASA, mission specialist Sandy Magnus floats between stacks of supplies and equipment in the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module aboard the International Space Station. The supplies and spare parts are for use and consumption for the ISS and its crews. Raffaello was transported up to the station by the space shuttle Atlantis. ((AP Photo/NASA))

The astronauts making NASA’s last shuttle flight turned into moving men and garbage haulers Wednesday with no time to dwell on their place in space history, after enjoying a special salute from the original “Rocket Man,” Elton John.
When asked by a journalist how the mission was going, Atlantis’ pilot, Douglas Hurley, replied: “I’ve got one word for you. Really busy.”

OK, two words.

In their first news interviews from orbit, Atlantis’ four astronauts said they were satisfied to go from Tuesday’s last spacewalk of the 30-year shuttle era to more mundane matters—unloading supplies and hauling trash. At least they didn’t have to deal with a loud and smelly toilet on the International Space Station; a station resident handled that.

“We’ve got some great station hosts up here, and we’re just trying to get them all stocked up for the next year,” Hurley said.

Atlantis delivered several tons of food, clothes and other household goods. The space station is supposed to operate for another decade, and unmanned craft from multiple countries will keep up supply runs once NASA’s shuttle program ends.

The astronauts have spent their lives focused and goal-oriented, Hurley said, and it’s no different now as they go from task to task on this mission.

“It keeps us so focused that we tend not to, I think, look at the big picture as much,” he said. “We’re kind of all telling ourselves that we’ll have time (later) to kind of reflect on this whole event.”

In honor of this last shuttle flight, NASA beamed up a prerecorded message by the British superstar, as well as a half-minute of his Apollo-era 1972 song “Rocket Man,” which was inspired by space exploration.

“Good morning, Atlantis, this is Elton John. We wish you much success on your mission and a huge thank you to all the men and women at NASA who worked on the shuttle for the last three decades.”

“Elton John. Music legend. Wow. That is absolutely fantastic,” replied Atlantis’ commander, Christopher Ferguson. “I think it just illustrates … the amount of people globally who have been affected by the shuttle program itself.”

“Rocket Man” has awakened previous shuttle crews and was on NASA’s Top 40 list of wake-up music for public voting earlier this year. It garnered more than 4,300 votes for 17th place.

NASA hopes to whip up even more interest Thursday by inviting the public to a virtual all-American meal with the last shuttle crew and their station colleagues. The astronauts will enjoy grilled chicken or barbecued beef brisket, Southwestern corn, baked beans and for dessert—Hostess apple pie.

The recipes—formulations as NASA’s food scientists call them—are online:

Both crews—10 astronauts strong—spent Wednesday unloading the cargo carrier that flew up on the shuttle. They will fill it back up with station trash and discarded equipment for return to Earth next week.

Space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. got stuck working on the stinky toilet.

The stench from the American-made station toilet was so bad Monday that the astronauts had to shut it down as spacewalk preparations were under way; that work was taking place close to the bathroom.

While the smell eased, the toilet had a loud motor noise and poor suction.

Flight controllers believe the odor problem is associated with the urine-processing system. Urine is recycled aboard the space station into water for cooking and drinking.

The Russian space station toilet was working fine; so was the one on Atlantis.

Atlantis’ 13-day mission is the last ever for a space shuttle. After that, the three surviving shuttles will become museum displays.



NASA on meal:
Reported by MARCIA DUNN of the Associated Press from CAPE CANEVERAL, Fla.

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Shuttle docks with space station

In a flight full of passion, Atlantis made the final docking in shuttle history Sunday, pulling up at the International Space Station with a year’s worth of supplies.

This frame grab from NASA-TV shows space shuttle Atlantis docked at the International Space Station, Sunday, July 10, 2011. Atlantis is delivering more than 4 tons of food, clothes and other space station provisions — an entire year's worth, in fact, to keep the complex going in the looming post-shuttle era. Atlantis' journey marks the final shuttle mission by NASA. (AP Photo/NASA)

The station’s naval bell chimed a salute as Atlantis docked 240 miles above the Pacific.

“Atlantis arriving,” called out space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. “Welcome to the International Space Station for the last time.”

“And it’s great to be here,” replied shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson.

Last time:
It’s the final docking to a space station ever by a NASA shuttle. Atlantis is being retired after this flight, the last of the 30-year shuttle program.

Excitement grew throughout the morning—in orbit and at Mission Control—as the miles melted between the two spacecraft with every circling of Earth. Every landmark, or rather spacemark, of this final two-week shuttle mission is being savored.

Mission Control’s lead flight director, Kwatsi Alibaruho, declared “this is it” as he gave the OK for the historic linkup.

This was the 46th docking by a space shuttle to a space station.

Nine of those were to Russia’s Mir station back in the mid-1990s, with Atlantis making the very first. The U.S. and Russia built on that sometimes precarious experience to create, along with a dozen other nations, the world’s largest spacecraft ever: the permanently inhabited, finally completed, 12 1/2-year-old International Space Station.

Payload: This time, Atlantis is delivering more than 4 tons of food, clothes and other space station provisions—an entire year’s worth, in fact, to keep the complex going in the looming post-shuttle era.

Ferguson was at the controls as Atlantis drew closer, leading the smallest astronaut crew in decades.

Only four are flying aboard Atlantis, as NASA kept the crew to a minimum in case of an emergency. In the unlikely event that Atlantis was seriously damaged, the shuttle astronauts would need to move into the space station for months and rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to get back home. A shuttle always was on standby before for a possible rescue, but that’s no longer feasible with Discovery and Endeavour officially retired now.

Two days into this historic voyage—the 135th in 30 years of shuttle flight—Atlantis was said by NASA to be sailing smoothly, free of damage. Sunday’s docking proved to be as flawless as Friday’s liftoff.

As a safeguard, Atlantis performed the usual backflip for the space station cameras, before the linkup. The station astronauts used powerful zoom lenses to photograph all sides of the shuttle. Experts on the ground will scrutinize the digital images for any signs of damage that might have come from fuel-tank foam, ice or other launch debris.

NASA, meanwhile, continued to bask in the afterglow of Friday’s liftoff. As part of Sunday morning’s mail to Atlantis, Mission Control sent up a 4-inch image of a shuttle made entirely of exclamation points.

Philadelphia: Flight controllers joked that the city of Philadelphia — Ferguson’s hometown — is arranging for Lincoln Financial Field to cut its turf in the shape of the crew’s mission patch.

“The mayor was quoted as saying, ‘As long as the NFL lockout is still ongoing and the Eagles aren’t playing, we might as well use the stadium for something,’” controllers wrote in the so-called news break.

Atlantis and its crew will spend more than a week at the orbiting complex. The shuttle flight currently is scheduled to last 12 days, but NASA likely will add a 13th day to give the astronauts extra time to complete all their chores.

NASA is getting out of the launching-to-orbit business, giving Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery to museums, so it can start working on human trips to asteroids and Mars. Private U.S. companies will pick up the more mundane job of space station delivery runs and, still several years out, astronaut ferry flights.

Reported by MARCIA DUNN of the Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.



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Astronauts practice for final launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—The four astronauts who will bid goodbye to the space shuttle program are practicing at the launch pad this week for their July 8 send-off.

Commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew will board Atlantis for a mock countdown Thursday.

The crew of space shuttle Atlantis, from left, mission specialist Sandy Magnus, pilot Doug Hurley, mission specialist Rex Walhiem and commander Chris Ferguson, leave the Operations and Checkout Building on their way to board the shuttle for their final day of training during the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, June 23, 2011. The launch of Atlantis, the final space shuttle mission, is scheduled for July 8. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

On Wednesday, the astronauts met with dozens of journalists at the base of the pad, answering questions and posing for pictures that will go down in history as NASA’s 30-year shuttle program ends.

It was such a momentous occasion that even reporters and photographers took a turn posing for the cameras, with Atlantis’ orange fuel tank and two white boosters serving as an irresistible backdrop. The spacecraft itself was turned inward toward the pad and not visible.

“I couldn’t think of a better backdrop,” Ferguson said. “For those of you who have ever had the opportunity to just stand underneath it and look up, I’ve always said that the magic of the space shuttle is just its magnitude.”

Astronaut Rex Walheim said he gets goosebumps “thinking that we’re going to get to ride that in about two weeks.”

The two other crew members are pilot Douglas Hurley and Sandra Magnus. All four are experienced space fliers.

Atlantis got a new fuel valve Tuesday. The old one, removed from main engine No. 3, showed a possible leak when the external fuel tank was filled last week to check for cracking. So far, the 50 reinforced brackets on the tank show no signs of cracks; technicians have completed about half the necessary X-rays. The new valve, meanwhile, will be tested this weekend.

Last November, Discovery ended up grounded for four months because of cracks that were discovered in the support brackets in the central portion of the fuel tank. The so-called intertank region holds instruments rather than fuel. The problem was traced to a brittle aluminum alloy, combined with assembly issues. The same material was used for Atlantis’ brackets, which were reinforced before last week’s test.

Only four astronauts are assigned to the 12-day mission, versus the normal six or seven, because of the fact that there no longer are any space shuttles on standby for a potential rescue. In the event of serious damage to the shuttle at liftoff, the four would move into the International Space Station and return, one at a time over the course of a year, via Russian Soyuz capsules.

Atlantis will carry up a full load of space station supplies. NASA hopes it will be enough to keep the orbiting complex going until private companies are able to take over cargo hauls.

This will be the 135th time a shuttle has blasted off. Discovery ended its flying career in March, and Endeavour on June 1. All three shuttles will retire to museums; in the case of Atlantis, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will be its final stop.




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Spacewalking astronauts encounter bolt trouble

MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A spacewalking astronaut ran into trouble Sunday while trying to lubricate a joint in the life-sustaining solar power system of the International Space Station, losing one bolt and getting a washer stuck in a crevice.

Astronauts Andrew Feustel, top, and Mike Fincke exit the hatch on the International Space Station at the start of the second spacewalk early Sunday May 22, 2011. Feustel and Fincke will add five pounds of ammonia to the space station's coolant system. The spacewalkers also will lubricate a large joint that rotates the space station's solar wings on the left side. (AP Photo/NASA)

Mike Fincke, one of NASA’s most experienced spacemen, had to settle for a partial lube job, after the bolts holding down covers on the massive joint started popping off unexpectedly.

“Bummer,” said his spacewalking partner, Andrew Feustel.

The two men went into overtime, though, to do what they could. They managed to lubricate four sections of the joint, two fewer than planned, and reinstall three covers. The fourth cover was brought back inside because of all the loose bolts.

Their spacewalk — the second of four planned for shuttle Endeavour’s final space station visit — went 1½ hours longer than planned. It lasted more than eight hours and set the record for the sixth longest in history.

“You guys earned your pay for the day,” astronaut Gregory Chamitoff radioed from inside. The spacewalkers joked about getting paid, saying their reward was being outside watching the world spin by.

The spacewalk started out well in the wee hours as Fincke and Feustel quickly topped off a leaky radiator line.

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Shuttle launch delayed again

MARCIA DUNN,AP Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s space shuttles are dragging their tails toward retirement.

The high-profile voyage of Endeavour — the next-to-last space shuttle flight led by the husband of wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — is off until at least next Sunday because of a technical problem. The latest culprit, believed to be a bad fuse box, illustrates just how complex these space machines are and why NASA’s goodbye to the 30-year shuttle program may be a long one.

In an April 30, 2011 file photo, visitors at the Kennedy Space Center take photos and get a close view of space shuttle Endeavour on Pad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA said Sunday, May 1, 2011 that space shuttle Endeavour's final launch is off until at least the end of the week because technicians need to replace a switch box in the engine compartment. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Commander Mark Kelly and his five crewmates quickly headed back to Houston on Sunday morning, two days after their first launch attempt was foiled.

The tip-off that Endeavour had a problem was the failure of heaters that are crucial for keeping a fuel line from freezing in space. The launch was called off Friday as the astronauts headed to the pad to board the shuttle. NASA has now traced the problem to the switch box.

Fixer uppers: Over the decades, space shuttles have encountered all sorts of technical problems, from nose to tail, that have held up launches. So have problems with their tanks and booster rockets.

Fuel leaks. Engine shutdowns. Wiring problems. Stuck valves. Burst hoses. Turbine failures. Hail damage, even woodpecker holes in the insulating foam of fuel tanks.

The list goes on — no surprise given the estimated 1 million parts per shuttle and 2.5 million parts when you throw in the giant fuel tank and two boosters.

Delay: Discovery sat out launch for four months before making its final mission in February. It was grounded by a cracked fuel tank. Now it’s Endeavour’s turn to stall.

“It is kind of funny. It’s almost like they don’t want to give up,” launch director Mike Leinbach said Sunday. “But it’s just coincidence.”

Taking out the suspect switch box in Endeavour’s engine compartment and putting in a new one is relatively straightforward, Leinbach said. But two full days of testing will be needed — on multiple systems associated with the box.

The heaters that remained off Friday are crucial for keeping a hydrazine fuel line from freezing in space, which, in turn, could lead to a rupture and even a fire once the shuttle is back in the atmosphere. The hydrazine feeds the devices that provide hydraulic power to move the main engine at liftoff and the brakes and rudder during landing.

Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team, said next Sunday is the earliest possible launch date.

“There’s still a whole lot of short-term work that has to be done,” he told reporters.

This will be the last voyage into orbit for Endeavour, NASA’s youngest shuttle.

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