Written by Stephanie Parker
This Friday marks the 135th and final launch of NASA's space shuttle program. The shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off around 2 a.m. Friday morning. Officials from Brevard County, where the launch will take place, estimate that over half a million people will be in attendance.
Leading the Atlantis on its historic last flight will be commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Douglas Hurley, engineer Rex Walheim, and Sandra Magnus, who has previous experience aboard the space station.
Atlantis is expected to dock with the space station late Friday morning, where it will prepare to unload more than 4 tons of equipment from an Italian vessel scheduled to arrive the next day.
A space-walk is also planned during the mission. Ronald Garan and Michael Fossum, two space station engineers, will attempt to remove a failed ammonia coolant pump which will return to Earth on Atlantis. They will also move an experimental robotic refueling package from Atlantis into the station.
Originally, Atlantis was planned to be a "launch as needed" shuttle, intended to rescue the Endeavor crew if anything went wrong during its launch this May. Should Atlantis encounter any problems, it could be a year before its crew returns safely home.
"We've had a chance in training to go through all the various scenarios, contingency deorbits, different kinds of contingency undocking scenarios, and we have actually found procedures that assume you have five or six or seven crew members," Magnus said. "And so these have been very good exercises for us to go through and figure out, OK, so now we only have four people, how are we going to do it?"
The emergency rescue plan would bring the Atlantis crew home on the Russian vessel Soyez, which makes routine trips to the space station for rotation changes. Though these rotations would help to create the year-long delay, both the Russian team and NASA believe it is the safest and best solution.
Atlantis is expected to land back at the Kennedy Space Center on July 20 around 7 a.m., after having spent nearly two weeks in orbit.