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The Final Space Shuttle on Pad 39A before Launch

The final mission in July 2011 the Space Shuttle program was STS-135, an add-on mission necessary to re-supply the International Space Station through the end of 2012.  This photograph is pre-dawn morning at Kennedy Space Center a day before the final flight.

Pete Crow at Launch Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center, with STS-135, final mission in the shuttle program on pad behind him awaiting launch. (Carol Anne Swagler photograph, © 2011 Seine/Harbour Productions)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hatch closing is a matter of life and death so much care is taken. This is the hatch that leads to the shuttle. With no more shuttle missions, and no more shuttles, it will be a long time before this hatch is opened again. Note the model of the shuttle in the upper left, and the American flag attached to the hatch. That flag flew on STS-1 and returned to Earth only to be brought back on STS-135. When Americans again dock here in their own vehicle this flag will be returned to Earth. The flag is likely to be here a very long time.

Ten days in Houston. For two days after launch on July 8, 2011,the shuttle Altantis chased after, and finally docked with the International Space Station for a final time.

The crew of four, eminently likeable people, spend the following eight days as first longshoremen, hauling about 9,000 pounds of supplies onto the ISS, and then as trashmen, hauling out 5,400 pounds of trash, stuff that had stopped working and, incredibly, 25-percent of their entire load: packing foam. When they arrived the shuttle and its bay was packed with goodies and when they closed the hatch on Monday morning sealing themselves back onto the Atlantis, they had an equal amount in volume (although not in pounds) that they had brought up.

The press, present in huge numbers for the final launch in Florida, didn’t bother to follow the mission to Houston. Six of the 3,000 accredited reporters were here. A couple of others used the phone bridge and called in each day for the press conferences. That was it.

Life in Houston. With an exception or two, the reporters in Houston, like those in Florida, were young, but very knowledgible. They represented mostly dot.coms who are space sites. One network reporter was here; another called each day from Florida. I was the only newspaper, although occasionally a F.orida news reporter would call in and ask a question or two.

In truth, there was not a lot of reason to be here.

NASA was running events on the ISS and the Shuttle 24/7 so anyone could be right up to date from anywhere in the world. They did not, of course, have a scuttlebutt in the hall or pick up tidbits that first could be known here, and sometimes not known anywhere else. But it was minor stuff. At one point on day eight the NASA public relations staff scuttled a press conference on a Saturday afternoon figuring no one would show, and considered canceling the one the following day only to be surprised that all the reporters (remember that is only six) showed up.

Press conferences, moreover, were oddly public, on TV, and then when the lights went off, reporters would gather with whoever was doing the briefing and the discussions sometimes would go on and on, as it did on Sunday.

What most intrigued me, I suppose, was the all encompassing nature of the mission here. NASA TV was on everywhere around JSC and the surrounding area. The local TV stations have NASA-TV on their cable channel lineup. And because of the nature of life on the ISS, reporters (me included) gradually lapsed into a life where day or night mattered less and less.

The shuttle circles the Earth roughly every 90 minutes, half in darkness and half in the sunlight. Languidly the Earth slowly rolls by 235 miles below — first over the Red Sea, then New Zealand and the Hudson Bay, each orbit slightly different than the last. It began to mesmerize me — the silence. The beauty. I longed to have a video tape of it to play in our home — hour after hour of grand elegance.

As the mission went on the crew was awakened earlier and earlier until, no longer getting up in the middle of the night, the day was beginning at 11 pm and then 10. The press site too followed the crew hours. First it opened at 4 am, then 3 and 2 am — and finally at midnight and continued to track earlier each day. The press conferences gradually eased back into the early hours of the day as well.

As the mission went on, I began to sleep in snatches, always with NASA-TV on, or sitting at my desk in the press site working, watching. Hotels follow a more rigid schedule and like their guests to leave at a certain time, but as the days passed one hotel’s front desk clerks began to befriend me and I to befriend them. They were fascinated by the shuttle and by NASA but, as is often true, they had never been allowed on Johnson Space Center. I brought them reporter’s notebooks and DVDs. They put me in a suite and began sliding their hotel hours later and later to accommodate my schedule.

And when I couldn’t make their computers work, I was taken into the back office and given access to their computers — and here, then, I asked about one of the clerk’s life, and he began to ask me about mine.

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Coming home. The shuttle cannot remain in space for long due to its limited amount of energy. Because the shuttle launched on its first attempt, it retained enough energy to stay up an additional day — crucial in terms of packing out additional trash.

By Monday morning, NASA was eying the weather in Florida, and eying the energy levels left on the shuttle. When Atlantis left the space station she had 4 days and 13 hours of energy left, but of that NASA will use two days of energy just to get the shuttle in position to land, and as for the other two days, they do not use them. They are for the direst of circumstances to insure that the shuttle will have enough energy, and time (two days) to land if unexpected things happen and need to be straightened out.

One reporter asked, given that the shuttle is scheduled to land before dawn when no one, including nASA itself, gets much in the way of pictures, if NASA had considered sending the shuttle around an extra orbit to allow the sun to come up on Thursday.

“We don’t think that way,” was the answer. NASA wants the shuttle down as soon as possible once she leaves the ISS.

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Why was I at home on the International Space Station? I was at home on the ISS because in one sense, I have been there and spent time roaming around. That’s why I gradually slipped more and more into life on the ISS as the mission went on; I know what is where on the ISS.

NASA took me on board in Houston on June 1, 2011 and set me free. So …

Direcly ahead? The Russian sector. To my left, the Japanese laboratory. Straight ahead, through the hatch, the shuttle is docked and, look up, that is the back of the shuttle, and look down and there is its nose. I’ve crawled from the shuttle’s mid deck through to the shuttle bay to the other side of that very hatch.

The Europeans? They are over there. And …

On July 1, 2011, JSC walked about eighty members of the press, me included, past and often right through their mockups in Building 9 at JSC — the shuttle, the Soyuz, the onboard bathroom, and the entire mockup of the International Space Station itself.

These mockups, we were told, were exact replicas. The astronauts train here for familiarization.

After watching STS-135’s crew on the ISS they have me convinced.

I knew where I was — although sometimes I had to think “now where is …?” Unlike a house with steps, the ISS has different pods attached here and there almost haphazardly because, in the weightlessness of space, there’s no reason for stairs, and so there’s no reason not to attach new stuff everywhichway to the main ISS.

And so they did.

On the day before landing the shuttle commander took a videocamera and roamed the entire ISS (with the exception of the Russian area). This was like my final exam. I may have thought I’d known all week where I was, but did I really? I was quietly surprised. Yeah, I knew what was around that corner. Yeah — look up. There it is … a hatch. I knew it was there … and …

It was eerie, but stangely comforting.

I longed to be weightless and to float free.

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What I do. I long ago decided that while I always report the basic facts hen I’m covering an event, what I’m really interested in is who has shown up. At the political conventions, it is the party officials who get those awful seats high in the eaves, or the people in the streets holding signs.

That’s where I head. That’s who I want to talk to.

The almost-Astronaut. Waiting in line to fly to Houston I strike up a conversation with a woman ahead of me with a NASA sticker on her luggage. “Does she work for NASA?”

“No — I was one of the 12 finalists to be one of the teacher astronauts, but I didn’t make it. They only selected three.”

I was impressed. Did she go through the training?

She did — she rode weighless on the vomit comet and had the $40,000 NASA physical.

“Forty-thousand dollars for a physical? What did they do?”

“You don’t want the details — really you don’t.”

She was philosophical. She knew all the places at NASA I knew — the mockups and the training facilities. She sincerely liked all of the other finalists and seemed genuinely happy for those selected. “They all spoke Russian so it would have been a plus.”

I asked her if they might call her back later since she was not merely one of the finalists, she was one of the stand-bys if someone dropped out.

“I don’t think so. They have never selected someone over 44 and now I’m over 44. No — I think it is over, but it was a great experience.”

Wait! This woman is over 44?

“Take a closer look.”

I already had. She didn’t look “over 44” to me.

The hotel clerk. A hotel clerk spies my media credentials. I’m vaguely embarrassed — I always try to remember to remove them before I leave the car. For one thing, that means I always know where they are, but mostly it is because I don’t like to draw attention to myself.

I’m here on business, but it doesn’t matter what my business is.

But I had forgotten to pull my credentials off and sow them, and he asked me about how it was to cover the shuttle, and how long I’ve covered launches. After we chat for awhile a second clerk, a woman, joins us — and eventually I go find them some momentos which are handed out to the press free. They are thrilled.

Later I ask the clerk about himself.

He works at the hotel part time and has three young daughters. He is an X-ray technician and learned his skills in the Army. His father was a career officer. The more I talk to him the more I like him.

I ask him whether he had been sent to Iraq — and he said he had several tours there, and also Afghanistan. I ask him if he is okay because what you see in war can harden and deaden you. “Yeah,” he says, “I’m okay” and then he adds that he was trained in airborne assault “so I knew what I might get into.”

What did he get into?

“911 — I was airlifted to Ground Zero less than three hours after it happened and our unit went down onto the streets by ropes. We didn’t land.”

Whoa.

“The streets were so hot that in three days I burned off the souls of four pairs of boots — the souls would get stock in the streets.”

These were stories I’d never heard before.

“We lived in Central Park,” he said, at first under the stars. By the end of September 11, 2001, the US military had 15,000 troops surrounding the ground zero site. The stink. Three and a half months later when they pulled me out, the stink was still there. No — it was worse. It was rotting human flesh. I knew what the stink was …”

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Dawn, Friday June 17, 2011, at Kennedy Space Center Launch Pad 39-A. Atlantis is on the pad, and the RSS (rotating service structure) is open. During the night the final payload in the shuttle program arrived at the pad ready to be placed in the Atlantis cargo bay.

The media and KSC employees were invited to visit 39-A on Friday, June 17, 2011.

Shuttles were launched from either Pad 39-A or Pad 39-B during the shuttle program from 1981 to 2011. Today only Pad 39-A remains.

Pad 39-B was in the process of being repurposed for the Constellation program, when President Obama canceled the Constellation program, reinstated it, and then canceled it again.

The future of both Pad 39-A and the now demolished Pad 39-B, like the future of the American spaceport at Kennedy Space Center, is uncertain.

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CLICK to ENLARGE // Over Pete Crow's left shoulder, the white rectangular box holds the payload for the Atlantis shown here on Pad 39-A the afternoon of June 17, 2011. The payload arrived overnight June 16-17 at the pad and will be loaded into the Atlantis' bay on Monday, June 20. - photo, Carol Anne Swagler for Seine/Harbour® Productions

Atlantis edged closer to its planned July 8, 2011, launch on Friday, June 17, 2011, when the payload for its bay arrived at Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Friday was employee day at the Pad. All KSC employees who wished to visit the Launch Pad were invited to do so although, unlike the press, they were not allowed to go onto the Pad itself, or up on the Rotating Service Structure (the RSS).

The RSS is currently retracted from the Shuttle, and in the photograph is behind and to the right of Pete. But beginning on Monday and until about 18 hours before launch, the RSS will be tucked around and protecting the Shuttle allowing, among other activities, the payload to be placed into the Atlantis’ cargo bay.

See video of how it works HERE.

The cargo on this final launch in the shuttle program’s 30-year history includes provisions for the International Space Shuttle for a year and an innovative new way to re-energize fading satellites in space.

When STS-135, the current mission, ends in late July, NASA will have launched its shuttle fleet 135 times with two tragic mishaps, a safety record far better than the estimates at the beginning of the program in 1981 when one estimate anticipated the loss of a shuttle every 25 missions.
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Atlantis viewed from Level 255 of the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) on June 17, 2011. The RSS does not have floors, it has "levels" measured in feet. The highest the elevators in the RSS go is level 255, or 255 feet above the pad floor. However, stairways on the RSS continue up an additional 40 feet above the highest elevator level ending at Level 295. Visitors to the RSS are escorted by people who receive extensive safety training. When exiting elevators, visitors are encouraged to "look up -- do not look down" because the RSS is built with almost entirely open grate flooring. Narrow catwalks extend from the center of the structure with only modest railings. If heights bother you, walking on open grates at the top of the RSS will terrify you. - photo, petecrow for Seine/Harbour® Productions

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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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Current header Photograph, Atlantis on Launch Pad 39-A, June 1, 2011. Photograph, Copyright 2011 by Anthony Achilles. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without written permission of the photographer

The Shuttle Atlantis completed its trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39-A shortly before 4 am, June 1, 2011. Lift-off from Pad 39-A will be no earlier than July 8, 2011, according to NASA.

Shortly after sunrise, with the Atlantis now on the Pad, but before the RSS cloaked her, the media was invited to visit her, go up on the RSS structure and photograph her.

The weather intervened. Some, but not all of the media taken to the Pad, were allowed up on the structure. These photographs are courtesy of Anthony Achilles, one of the few media who photographed Atlantis, and one of the few media ever allowed up onto the top of the RSS.

These extraordinary photographs are reproduced here through courtesy of an extraordinary photographer.

Looking down at the Atlantis from the top of the RSS at Launch Pad 39-A. Copyright 2011 by Anthony Achilles. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without written permission of the photographer.


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Looking down at the Atlantis from the top of the RSS at Launch Pad 39-A. Copyright 2011 by Anthony Achilles. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without written permission of the photographer.


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Photographer Anthony Achilles on top of the RSS at Launch Pad 39-A. The Atlantic Ocean is visible in the upper left of this photograph. Copyright 2011 by Anthony Achilles. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without written permission of the photographer.

The photographs in this post, Copyright 2011 by Anthony Achilles. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without written permission of the photographer

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Scroll down for the Lift-to-Mate sequence of pictures taken by Carol Anne, and separately by me. This post tells more about the pictures in that post, and more about that day which was the final lift-to-mate in the shuttle program.

Carol Anne Swagler's photograph of the shuttle Atlantis suspended high above the floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on the afternoon of May 18, 2011. Ms. Swagler took this photograph and a series of others that appear in the Lift-to-Mate post below from the 16th floor while leaning out over the main bay of the VAB. The Atlantis would be lifted 500 feet to the ceiling of the VAB, then brought back down atop a 5-story Crawler and secured. This was the 135th and final lift-to-mate procedure in the shuttle program. The program will end when this shuttle lands after its scheduled mission in July 2011. Atlantis will then be retired and sent to a museum.

About this Post. This is largely an inside baseball post in response to those wanting to know more about our VAB photographs in the post below, about how we took them, when we took them, and where we were in the VAB when we took them.

All of the photographs in the VAB lift-to-mate posts were taken by Carol Anne or me. None are NASA photographs, but you can access the NASA photographs HERE and they are excellent. Although, as noted below, we did exchange photographs with two other photography/video teams, we acquired their pictures — and they acquired ours — without any of us granting usage rights.

The sole purpose of exchanging was to round each of our three film libraries which, because of the NASA restrictions on the access provided to different film teams, resulted in no one having the complete sets of photographs from the three locations (floor, 5th floor and 16th floor) they wished.

The Carol Anne Swagler Photographs. In all, Carol Anne took 161 photographs from the 5th and the 16th floors of the Vehicle Assembly building on May 18, 2011. Additionally, she shot an extensive amount of video which has not yet been archived and timed.

Carol Anne returned to the VAB in two different visits — one in the mid-morning photographing from the VAB floor, and a second shortly after noon photographing from the 16th floor. Her shots from the 16th floor were vastly superior to mine, and among the best taken because she had positioned herself at the end of the main VAB bay affording her a unique angle on the turning of the shuttle Atlantis upward to a 90-degree angle.

Her shots are used exclusively in the lift-to-mate post below during the afternoon. My photos are not credited and are generally the morning and evening photographs.

Pete Crow and the shuttle Atlantis on the main floor of the VAB on May 18, 2011.

The Peter M. Crow Photographs. I would visit the VAB three times during the lift-to-mate. First I went over mid-morning (floor), and a second time after noon (16th floor). About 5 pm I returned for the evening and photographed from the floor, 5th floor and 16th floor until 9 pm when NASA Media ended the photo opportunity.

In all I took 366 still photographs and shot 14 video takes totaling 10 minutes 13 seconds.

In the morning we were both together on the main floor, and were again together during the afternoon, when the Atlantis was lifted and stood on end, when both of us were sent with the group that was on the 16th floor. The inability of the media to go between floors quickly, which often had been the case in the past, meant that we got no pictures of the shuttle from the 5th floor. On the other hand, depending on the lenses those on the 5th floor were using, they often never got complete shots of the entire shuttle as it was raised. The 16th floor by being parallel to the top of the main orange booster rocket afforded easy shots of the entire shuttle.

Peter M. Crow and Carol Anne Swagler on the main floor of the VAB on the morning of May 18, 2011.

Photographers exchanged their photographs. In early evening, May 18, 2011, before returning to the VAB a final time, I exchanged all of my photographs from the day, and all of Carol Anne’s, with a film crew from Palm Beach, FL, and Bridgeport, CT. In return they gave us all of their video and photographs for the entire day, including their photographs from the 5th floor. As a result both they, and we, were able to round out our film libraries and make them complete.

The 11 story evening climb.Many photographers who were working on the main/first floor decided to move to the 16th floor as the shuttle was lifted in the evening to the ceiling. Unfortunately, the elevator in the B Tower did not work.

As a result about 20 photographers and their equipment, including me, were trapped at the 5th floor while the shuttle passed upwards and past the 16th floor where we had planned to shoot the lift.

In the end, lacking any other way to get to the 16th floor, the trapped photographers climbed 11 stories from the 5th to the 16th floor. Most made it — I did — but the group of 20 quickly sorted out in the first several flights between floors 5 and 8 or 9 and many arrived too late to get photographs on the lift. By then the shuttle was hanging over the main bay nearly 500-feet up at the ceiling.

Floor plan of the Vehicle Assembly Building. On May 18, 2011, the shuttle Atlantis was moved from the Transfer Aisle into High Bay 1 between Towers D and E.

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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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STS-135

Launch Pad 39-A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida


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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 mission in April 2011. The mission following STS-134 would therefore become the final flight in the shuttle program, instead of STS-134 as originally thought. The additional mission is scheduled for June 2011. NASA has designated the flight STS-135.

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