Ken Kremer at the Kennedy Space Center - The Grand Finale of NASA's three decade long Space Shuttle program is less than two weeks away. Space Shuttle Atlantis sits majestically at Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the STS-135 mission - the capstone flight for NASA's three orbiter fleet.
Atlantis historic date with space is slated for July 8 with liftoff targeted for 11:26 a.m. EDT. An all veteran crew of four led by Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson will ride Atlantis to orbit for 12 days and then back for the last landing into the history books - as the last of the shuttles is retired forever.
Ferguson will go down in history as the last Space Shuttle Commander. He is joined by Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
This week the crew completed four days of flight training activities and a final countdown dress rehearsal at the pad, known as the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT).
"We're very honored to be in this position," Ferguson said to reporters at the launch pad. "There are many people who could be here. We consider ourselves fortunate and lucky."
On its last mission Atlantis will haul the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module and the Robotic Refueling Mission to the International Space Station. Raffaello is loaded with critical space parts, logistics, science experiments and crew supplies that will keep the orbiting outpost running for about a year.
After Atlantis returns, the three orbiters, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour will be headed to museums. Some would argue that the orbiters still have lots of life left in them. While others say they are too expensive and too dangerous. Regardless which side you are on the reality is the program will end and the US will be left with no indigenous capability to launch astronauts to space for several years, at least.
But before that happens Atlantis must first launch and complete its mission. Recently after Atlantis was rolled out to the launch pad, reporters had the good fortune to be permitted to participate in the ultimate photo op and shoot NASA's final orbiter from just about every possible angle at close range.
We left the Kennedy Space Center press site for the relatively short drive to the pad. We passed through the high security perimeter gates, drove up the launch pad and rode the elevator up to the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP). Then we toured multiple levels from top to bottom of the gigantic launch pad gantry -formally known as the Fixed Service Structure and the Rotating Service Structure - scurrying quickly from one jaw dropping spot to the next one.
This Atlantis pad tour was a space reporters dream come true - but beware those faint of heart or with a fear of heights.
Check out the first half of my Launch Pad photo album, focusing here on the upper gantry levels to which NASA granted us ultra rare and virtually unfettered access.
Atlantis Photo Gallery
All photos Credit: Ken Kremer
The STS-135 crew for the Grand Finale of the Space Shuttle Program take part in Q& A with the media at Pad 39A with Atlantis in the background. From left; Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus; Pilot Doug Hurley and Commander Chris Ferguson.
Space Shuttle Atlantis sits atop the Mobile Launch Platform and Flame Trench at Launch Pad 39A for the final time.
Side view of Shuttle stack looking down from upper reaches of launch gantry.
Shuttle Atlantis and the “Beanie Cap" or Gaseous Oxygen Vent Arm and Hood. Credit: Ken Kremer
View of Atlantis towards the Atlantic Ocean.
Looking to Atlantis crew cabin from alongside walkway to the White Room.
Close up of the White Room which astronaut crews pass through on launch day to enter the crew cabin - taken from atop the Rotating Service Structure which shields orbiter before launch.
Close up of Atlantis nose and narrow attach point to External Tank - must survive violent shaking of 7 million pounds of liftoff thrust!
View down to base of shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, External Tank and orbiter belly umbilical attach point.
Atlantis wing and tail section close-up resting atop Mobile Launch Platform at Launch Pad 39A.
Seven slide wire baskets for astronaut escape in case of launch emergency are located on level 195 of Pad 39A.