Fragile Oasis

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Turning the Page to the Next Chapter of Human Spaceflight - Part 3

Welcome to Part III of this behind the scenes look at the historic mission of STS-135.

The Commitment to Continue

Recognizing the historic significance of the STS-135 mission, Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson presented the Expedition 28 crew with a flag that was originally flown to orbit April 12, 1981, on STS-1, the first space shuttle mission.

This flag will remain on the International Space Station until a United States spacecraft carrying a crew docks to the Station, and then brings it back to Earth. The flag represents the pride of our nation, and the commitment to continue our country’s exploration of space.

We picked the Harmony Module’s forward hatch as a place of honor and significance to display the flag.


The Harmony module brings much of the space station together. The Japanese Laboratory is attached to the port hatch, The European Laboratory is attached to the starboard hatch, and the aft hatch leads to the U.S.. laboratory, the Russian segment and the rest of the space station. The hatch's zenith and nadir are used for the visiting Japanese cargo HTV spacecraft, and are planned to be used for commercial cargo spacecraft. The forward hatch leads to a mating adapter where thirty-five space shuttles have docked, including this last flight of Atlantis.

Those space shuttles leave the legacy of this incredible orbiting research facility that I have the privilege to presently call home.

The International Space Station itself is an important part of the Space Shuttle program legacy. It is a shining example of international cooperation, and a stepping-stone to human exploration beyond low earth orbit. Significantly, it will help improve life on Earth through the research being conducted onboard.

Closing the Hatch

It was a very emotional goodbye as the time approached to close the hatch between the Space Station and Atlantis. We all knew that this meant the end of a very important part of our national identity.

After we all said our goodbyes, Mike Fossum and I closed the hatch on the station side as Sandy Magnus closed the hatch on the shuttle side. Just before closing the hatch, I reached through to shake Sandy’s hand and then realized it was the last time anyone would shake hands between the International Space Station and a Space Shuttle. The emotion of the moment hit me.


The next day was undocking day. In the time leading up to undocking, I was in the Harmony Module and could hear the bolts that kept the two vehicles together unfasten. Moments later I heard Chris Ferguson announce “Physical Separation."

Shortly after Atlantis undocked, I continued the maritime tradition observed on the Space Station of ringing the ship’s bell three times to announce the departure of Atlantis. As I rang the bell I announced, “Atlantis departing the International Space Station for the last time. Thank you for your twelve docked missions to ISS and for capping off thirty seven space shuttle missions to construct this incredible orbiting research facility. We’ll miss you guys, God Speed and soft landing."

After Atlantis backed off to 600 feet from the station, the ISS did a 90 degree yaw maneuver before Atlantis did a complete 360 degree loop around the ISS. We were fortunate to have some great views of Atlantis during this “fly around”.

Two days later, Atlantis hurled through the atmosphere below us as I was conducting a science experiment in the U.S. lab, so I couldn't break away. But, Mike Fossum took some incredible pictures of Atlantis’ return to Earth and the picture perfect end to the U.S. Space Shuttle Program.

It's interesting that I am writing this from space at a time when the United States does not have its own method of launching people into space and returning them to Earth. Yet, I am very optimistic about the future of space exploration.

Next: Please stay tuned for a story about stepping out into the vacuum of space.