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Atlantis crew prepare for the 'Final Countdown'

End of an era for US manned spaceflight

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The last crew of the orbiter Atlantis arrived at Kennedy Space Center yesterday ahead of the "Final Countdown" of the space shuttle programme.

Commander Chris Ferguson said: "I think I speak for the whole crew in that we are delighted to be here after a very arduous nine-month training flow and we're thrilled to finally be here in Florida for launch week."

Joining Ferguson (left in photo) for the 12-day STS-135 mission to the International Space Station are pilot Doug Hurley (second left), and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

The crew of Atlantis on the tarmac at Kennedy Space Center. Pic: NASA

They're tasked with delivering the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module on what assistant administrator for space operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, described last week as an "incredibly important" mission to the orbiting outpost.

Despite Gerstenmaier's assertion, Atlantis' swansong flight has more than a touch of the purely symbolic about it, since the vital ISS supplies could certainly be delivered by Russian Progress spacecraft or European Automated Transfer Vehicle.

The mission summary (pdf) says of the other STS-135 objectives: "The mission also will fly the Robotic Refueling Mission, an experiment designed to demonstrate and test the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space, even satellites not designed to be serviced. The crew also will return an ammonia pump that recently failed on the station."

Friday's launch marks the end of an era for NASA, and once Atlantis touches down for the last time, the US will be left without the capability for manned spaceflight.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, though, insisted last week that America was set to embark on the "grand challenge" of human space exploration beyond Earth orbit and the Moon.

Speaking to the National Press Club in Washington, he said: "Some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight; as a former astronaut and the current NASA administrator, I'm here to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success – and failure is not an option.

"President Obama has given us a Mission with a capital 'M' – to focus again on the big picture of exploration and the crucial research and development that will be required for us to move beyond low Earth orbit. He's charged us with carrying out the inspiring missions only NASA can do that will take us farther than we've ever been. To orbit Mars and eventually land on it. He's asked us to start planning a mission to an asteroid."

Bolden named private ventures such as SpaceX as the best way to get astronauts to the ISS, "rather than continuing to outsource this work to foreign governments", while leaving NASA to focus on the bigger picture.

He reiterated: "We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking the necessary – and difficult – steps today to ensure America's pre-eminence in human spaceflight for years to come."

Atlantis on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. Pic: NASA

Atlantis is due to lift off at 15:26 GMT on 8 July. You can find NASA's latest shuttle news right here. ®

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