Final Four

An STS-135 photo album

In this picture taken on the morning of launch, the crew pauses at the foot of Atlantis before boarding.
Magnus checks out a Russian Sokol space suit in Moscow during training. In the unlikely event that the last shuttle crew had been stranded at the space station, they would have come home one at a time, in Russian Soyuz vehicles, over the course of a year. Based on a complex set of considerations, NASA decided ahead of time that Walheim would come home first, followed by Ferguson, Magnus, and finally Hurley.
Carrying on a shuttle tradition, NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson deals a hand of cards on the morning of launch. According to the rules, the crew can't head to the pad until the commander loses, thereby using up his bad luck.
The exhaust plume of Atlantis, as seen from the Shuttle Training Aircraft on the morning of July 8, 2011.
Ferguson and Hurley set up Atlantis's flight deck after reaching orbit. Because this would be a busy time for just four astronauts, flight planners scheduled launch for early in the day, to squeeze in a few extra work hours.
Spacewalks are normally done by shuttle astronauts when their vehicle is docked to the space station, but with training time limited for the STS-135 crew, station astronauts Mike Fossum (pictured) and Ron Garan handled the job of installing a robotic refueling experiment.
Hurley with just some of the cargo delivered by Atlantis. Putting everything in the right place was an important part of the job, so that future station astronauts—including Hurley's wife Karen Nyberg, who's scheduled to live on the station next year—can easily find their number-coded supplies.
Shuttle and Station astronauts take time for a group portrait. Clockwise from Ferguson (holding camera) are Ron Garan, Sergei Volkov, Walheim, Magnus, Andrey Borisenko, Satoshi Furukawa, Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Mike Fossum, and Hurley.
Fossum took this shot of Atlantis just before it undocked from the station.
Rex Walheim on the flight deck of Atlantis, just before re-entry—the last onboard photo taken in the shuttle's 30-year history.
Atlantis's orbital maneuvering engines fire to drop the orbiter into the atmosphere on the mission's last day, as seen from the space station.
Landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, just before dawn on July 21.
Among the stops on the postflight publicity tour were the sets of "The Big Bang Theory" and "The Colbert Report." Here Magnus chats with Stephen Colbert in the makeup room before appearing on the show.
Signing autographs at the Kennedy Space Center in November 2012. The STS-135 astronauts took care during and after their flight to acknowledge the contributions of the space shuttle workforce. Says Ferguson, “We knew it was an important part of the story to thank everybody for what they’d done.”

None of them had expected to fly another shuttle mission. Even when they were well into training, six months before launch, they weren't certain STS-135 would be approved by NASA and Congress. So when Atlantis lifted off to begin the shuttle program's final mission in July 2011, it was something of a bonus—for both the crew (pictured from left: Rex Walheim, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Chris Ferguson), and for NASA, which was able to stock the International Space Station with supplies one last time before the shuttle went into retirement.

Sharing this unique experience—the intense and abbreviated training, the busy two weeks in orbit, and the postflight publicity tour—created a special bond among the STS-135 astronauts, says Ferguson, the mission commander. “I’d like to think we’re all lifelong friends. Crews come and go. Some get along really well, and others can’t wait to fly the flight and get away from each other. Just human nature. But I really think we struck a right balance between work and play.”

See more scenes from STS-135 in the gallery above.

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