KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla., July 7, 2011 -- They signed their names as a joke, "The Final Four," but they have adopted it as a slogan. The four astronauts flying the last space shuttle mission know their names will go down in the history books. Chris Ferguson. Doug Hurley. Sandy Magnus. Rex Walheim.
Their mission on the shuttle Atlantis, designated STS-135, was a phantom mission for months -- they were originally assigned to STS-335, the rescue mission NASA plans for every space shuttle flight. If the crew of Endeavour, which spent 16 days in space in May, had run into trouble, Commander Ferguson and his crew would have launched on Atlantis to bring them home.
They weren't needed for a rescue mission, and NASA came up with the funds to morph them into a real mission. Shuttle crews have historically had six or seven astronauts, but this crew is small because there is no rescue mission if Atlantis gets in trouble. NASA is literally out of fuel tanks and booster rockets for any more shuttle launches. If Atlantis were damaged after launch and couldn't safely fly home, the four astronauts would camp on the space station and hitch rides home on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Atlantis is flying the 135th space shuttle mission, ending a program that celebrated unprecedented triumphs, dimmed by two spectacular tragedies which are forever etched into our memories. Chris Ferguson is a quietly confident commander with a puckish sense of humor. He carries a flip camera with him to capture all the mission's notable moments. He pulled it out before his last press conference and chuckled as he shot video of the media mayhem.
Ferguson is a veteran -- this is his third spaceflight. He has spent 28 days in space. For him, he said, the rewards of spaceflight for our country are worth the risk.
"I think a lot of us quietly take stock of -- is this really worth it, is it worth it personally to me, is it worth it to the country, is it worth it to my family," he said in a preflight interview with ABC News. "We always believe in the best possible outcome, we believe in our heart of hearts that we are going to go up and do the best possible job and the country is going to be extraordinarily proud of what we accomplished."
His pilot, Doug Hurley, is flying on his second mission. His wife, Karen Nyberg, is an astronaut as well, and they have a 17-month-old son. Hurley admits to being speed demon -- he is a former fighter pilot and a NASCAR fan -- and for him flying on the space shuttle is the ultimate trip.
"Pilots always want to fly faster and higher and the space shuttle fits that bill," he said. "I wish I could describe it to you, but it is the ride of a lifetime."
Sandy Magnus is the only woman on the flight -- but she is the most experienced astronaut on the crew. She spent four months on the space station from the fall of 2008 to the spring of 2009. She has a mischievous sense of humor and a ready laugh. She is the loadmaster for this mission, which means keeping track of 8,000 pounds of groceries and goods going to the space station, and then transferring used equipment back to earth.
The cargo is marked. If something has a yellow sticker on it, it goes to the space station; if it has a green sticker, it goes back down to Earth. Magnus said she is tempted to slap a yellow sticker on her forehead and stay behind when Atlantis undocks from the space station.
Space Shuttle Atlantis: The Final Crew
Magnus said she is grateful to the pioneering women who made it possible for her to become an astronaut. "I remember going into high school in 1978 and I already latched onto the idea of being an astronaut, and I read in the paper about the first group of women who were selected into the astronaut program and I thought, wow, I don't have to break any doors down, these women have already done this for me."
Rex Walheim is the last member of the foursome. If this crew had more people on it he would be going out on the only spacewalk of the mission -- but, alas, they are so short-staffed he will have to stay inside to supervise space station astronauts when they get to go out in his place. Walheim is married with two teenagers, and he calls San Carlos, California his hometown.
Walheim was a flight controller before he was selected as an astronaut in 1996. This will be his third space shuttle flight. He jokes about how "iffy" this flight was for so long.
"People would still come to you and say, 'Hey, you guys got money yet?'" he said. "And we'd try to say, 'Yeah, we are really going to fly.'
"We were happy when we got out to the launch pad."
So the final four are happy to be close to launch -- even though they have only had nine months to train, and will all take on multiple jobs during this mission.
The advantage for a four-person crew on the last space shuttle mission is one most parents of small children will understand. Everyone gets a window seat.