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The roof of the largest building in the world, NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, is 515 feet above sea level, 40 +stories high. Look carefully at the left of this photograph taken by Pete Crow at 11:21 am on July 8, 2011. In the distance Atlantis sits on Launch Pad 39A. In less than eight minutes Atlantis would be gone, headed to space for the final time. When Atlantis returns on July 20 or July 21, she will be towed down the road to her permanent home at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center Museum. Atlantis is expected to arrive at the Museum, after much prep work, in 2012.

Photographers on the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) wait for the launch of Atlantis (in distance, far left).

For safety reasons only 40 people are allowed on the VAB roof for launches because escape from the roof is limited.

Although there are five narrow stairways leading from the roof, one on each side of the building and one in the center at the elevator stairwell, only one stairway — the west stairway — is deemed suitable in the event of a mishap on the launch pad. That is because to escape from the roof NASA policy is for escapees to flee as far away from the launch pad as possible before exiting the roof.

No one has ever had to escape the VAB roof and, with the exception of the Challenger tragedy in 1986, no mishaps ever occurred in launching the space shuttles. Challenger broke up over the Atlantic Ocean with the loss of the entire crew. No one on the ground was injured.

Among the 25 or so news organizations NASA granted VAB roof access for the final historic launch from approximately 3,000 accredited media were the Smithsonian Magazine, the Orlando Sentinel and two video and still photographers from Seine/Harbour® Productions, Studio City, California/The Grove Sun, Grove, Oklahoma — Carol Anne Swagler and Peter Michael Crow.

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The Lift to Mate Sequence === The next step in the process of preparing a shuttle for launch, following rollover from the OPF (hangar), is lifting the shuttle and mating it to the Crawler which will take the shuttle to the launching pad.

The “Lift to Mate” of the Shuttle Atlantis took place on Wednesday, May 18, 2011, the day following rollover. The photographs here were posted serially through the day as the Lift to Mate procedure progressed in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

After being rolled in through the doors shown straight ahead in this picture, apparatus was attached to lift the shuttle. This is about 9:20 am. The entire process has taken only a few hours to as many as 18-hours veteran reporters say. The mating of the Atlantis to the Crawler was to have taken place overnight, May 17-18, but was delayed until the morning of May 18. Here the shuttle has been placed in the strap aparatus that will be used to lift her and turn her 90-degrees. On the Crawler she will stand on end with her nose pointing skyward.


Reporters and photographers were divided into three groups, "A", "B" and "C", and escorted to the VAB for thirty minutes on three different occasions on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. Because of confusion, some media came as early as 3 am; the event started at 8 am. In all more than 100 of 1,500 accredited signed up to come, but less than half probably attended because of the confusion.

Beginning about 1 pm, the shuttle was lifted over the next hour and a half until it was upright. This photograph, and the three following were taken by Carol Anne Swagler on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building.


Carol Anne Swagler / photograph 2


Carol Anne Swagler photograph 3


Carol Anne Swagler photograph 4

What happens after the shuttle is lifted upright?
The shuttle is allowed to hang just off the floor for awhile to be sure it is not swinging. Then the shuttle is turned 45-degrees, lifted up 500-feet to the ceiling of the Vehicle Assembly Building, and — clearing the 16th floor level — moved into the bay where the Crawler is waiting below. Once over the Crawler, the shuttle is turned an additional 45-degress to line it up with the 5-story Crawler waiting below. Then the shuttle is lowered onto and mated with the Crawler and attached to fuel tanks.

The final Mate-to-Lift in the shuttle program, shown in these series of photographs, began about 8 am on Wednesday, May 18, 2011, and was not completed until late evening Wednesday, May 18, 2011. It is a slow laborious and potentially dangerous process which has, with this final lift-to-mate, been successfully accomplished 135 times in this building.

The next major step in the STS-135 mission of the Atlantis will come in about two weeks. On May 31 or June 1, 2011, the Atlantis will be moved to launch pad 39A for the final launch in the American space shuttle program. The program began more than 30 years ago.

5:43 pm. After hanging uright for about four hours, the shuttle is ready to be lifted, moved across the top of the VAB building and into the bay and lowered onto a 5-story Crawler which is waiting.


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6:10 pm


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6:49 pm


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7:28 pm The remaining series of photographs were taken from the 16th floor of the VAB.


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7:53 pm The shuttle has been moved across the ceiling of the VAB into the bay where the Crawler waits 52-stories (500-feet) below. It has been turned an aditional 45-degress to align it with the Crawler. The final steps are to lower the shuttle 500-feet onto the 5-story Crawler and secure it.


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8:15 pm The NASA crew worked for at least another hour aligning the pins that secured the shuttle and crawler before lowering the shuttle. The orange tank in the lower center of the photograph is the main fuel tank.


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Reporting from KSC is rarely easy unless you are a wire service reporter or major newspaper reporter, or have convinced NASA to favor you. Although 1,500 media were given credentials, that does not assure that you will be allowed into the VAB or onto other KSC sites to report. Nor can the media count on the schedule they are given. In the lift to mate photo opportunity, photographers were divided into three groups, and given three different time slots. But in the end the three groups were combined into two groups, and the three time slots were reduced to two -- and those times were changed without informing all photographers. Some photographers arrived at 3 am to find the event had been moved to 8 am, and others went to lunch as told they could, only to return to discover the final photo opportunity of the day had gone forward without them. It's not entirely KSC's press relations' office's fault. Security, the vagaries of the VAB operations and the lack of staff all contribute.

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.”petecrow/NASA” © 2011 by / Peter M. Crow and the Peter Michael Crow Trust and by Seine/Harbour® Productions, LLC, Studio City, California.

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UPDATE == March 28, 2011 … NASA now says, whether Congress funds the flight or not, that NASA will find the money to fly one additional shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) after STS-134’s scheduled launch in April 2011..

What may be the final launch in the American shuttle program moved a step closer overnight, March 10-11, 2011, when Endeavour was moved from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. About sixty reporters and photographers covered the event from the 5th and 16th floors of the VAB, and from the press site across the street.

Endeavour departed from the bay on the far right of the VAB about 8 pm; Discovery departed in January for its final flight from the VAB other bay. This photo was taken at 10:18 pm, March 10, 2011. Endeavour is out of frame to the right, slowly progressing toward Pad 39-A where it was scheduled to arrive about 6 hours after leaving the VAB, or roughly about 2 am.

photograph by Carol Anne Swagler on behalf of The Grove Sun Daily / photo © 2011 Seine/Harbour® Productions, Studio City, California.

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