Space Shuttle 311 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
HOUSTON - The shuttle Atlantis astronauts finished packing more than 2 tons of old equipment and trash from the International Space Station into a cargo hauler on Sunday for the last shuttle ride back to Earth.
The Italian-built storage pod will be loaded into Atlantis' payload bay early Monday, in advance of the shuttle's departure from the station early on Tuesday. The 13-day mission, the last of NASA's 30-year-old space shuttle program, is due to end with a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:57 a.m. EDT (0957 GMT) on Thursday.
"This is really the last train out of town," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said during an in-flight interview. "I don't think the full magnitude of everything is really going to hit us until after the wheels stop."
Ferguson and his three crewmates delivered more than 5 tonnes of food, clothing, equipment and other supplies for the outpost, a $100 billion project of 16 countries that was finished earlier this year after more than a decade of construction 220 miles (350 km) above Earth.
With help from the six-member live-aboard station crew, the astronauts
also packed up 2.5 tonnes of old equipment, including 12 laptop
computers, foam packaging and other items no longer needed on the
In all, the crew put in the equivalent of 150 hours of labor
transferring cargo, plus oversaw a spacewalk by two space station
astronauts to pack up a refrigerator-sized coolant pump that broke last
The supplies aboard Atlantis are intended to tide over the station until
NASA's newly hired cargo delivery firms begin flying next year. "The
space station is actually in very good shape now for the retirement of
the space shuttle," said flight director Chris Edelen.
EYES ON DEEP SPACE
NASA meanwhile, wants to ramp up development of a new capsule-style
spacecraft and heavy-lift booster that can ferry people into deep space,
beyond the station's orbit where the shuttles cannot fly.
Crew ferry flights to the station will be handled exclusively by Russia
until and unless U.S. firms develop spaceships capable of orbital
NASA is supporting efforts by four firms -- Boeing, Space Exploration
Technologies, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin, a space travel
start-up backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos -- with technology
development contracts worth $269 million.
NASA hopes the new vehicles will be ready to fly in about 2015. Russia
charges the United States more than $50 million per person for Soyuz
capsule transportation and training.
Atlantis arrived at the station on July 10, becoming the 37th and final
mission to the station. Over the past 30 years, NASA also flew 98 other
shuttle missions to deploy satellites and observatories, including the
Hubble Space Telescope, and to conduct research and test technologies.
The shuttle proved to be much more complicated and labor-intensive to
prepare for flight, and not as safe as expected. Two orbiters were lost
in accidents, killing 14 astronauts.
The end of the program will hit central Florida, Houston and other
shuttle operational hubs hard, with thousands of engineers and
technicians due to lose their jobs shortly after Atlantis lands.
"You have to come to terms with the end before you can really put on a new beginning," Ferguson said.
"I think once we can finally get over the fact that the shuttle is gone
... I believe we'll begin to pick up the pieces and everyone will see
that we really do have some vibrant programs out there that we're