As Mike Fossum floated into the International Space Station, camera in hand, one thought kept coming back to him: don’t screw this up. Two days earlier, he had said goodbye to the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. And not just any crew – the last crew. Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus, and Rex Walheim had all departed and buckled into their seats in preparation for their reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. They would make a rare nighttime landing, giving Fossum an unparalleled opportunity to photograph the last shuttle ever to fly home.
If he doesn’t screw up.
Before living aboard the station, Fossum had flown on twice Discoveryin 2006 and 2008. He wanted to honor the shuttle and its last crew on July 21, 2011, when the Atlantis orbiter would blast a final plasma trail through the atmosphere.
Fossum recalled seeing the shuttle fly over the Johnson Space Center on its way to the nighttime landings at Kennedy Space Center. “I knew how vibrant that was, and I thought with the right lighting techniques I could get a good view of the landing from the station’s dome.”
So during the nine days Atlantis was docked at the ISS, when he failed to help the station and shuttle crews move three tons of supplies from the orbiter to the lab, Fossum practiced low-light photography. He placed a camera bracket aimed at a window in the dome of the ISS and took pictures of an aurora. His plan was to adjust his camera’s f-stop, ISO, and other settings to see what worked as the shuttle came into view from the station and headed toward the horizon.
Meanwhile, Ferguson and his crew had also delivered a U.S. flag flown during the first space shuttle mission in 1981. The flag will remain on the station until the next crew launched from U.S. soil retrieves the flag for return to Earth . That could happen at the end of 2017 or 2018.
A gloomy mood
The busy, festive atmosphere was then subdued in the station Atlantis disconnected for the last time. “It was a gloomy few days back then Atlantis backwards, and we knew it was the last shuttle,” Fossum recalled.
There was also an introspective mood in the shuttle, Ferguson recalls. “On the last day, when three crews in mission control were at work for eight hours, I made it a point to say goodbye to each crew because I knew that when they left the control center it would never be the same. We tried to make it special. And I remember after the last goodbye I thought, you know, I have no idea where I’ll be in a month.
Then the moment came and the shuttle appeared in its final orbit. Fossum adjusted his settings and took about 100 shots before getting the shot he wanted.
“While I was attaching the camera to the bracket, the sun rose above the horizon and washed away the plasma trail,” he recalled in an interview with Ars. “And I said, ‘Oh, I really hope I have it.’ My hands were shaking as I did it. We don’t do a lot of night landings and because the dome was relatively new, no one had captured that view before. For me it was quite profound to see that last bit of fireworks, knowing none were redone.
And when the shuttle came to rest on the runway? Did the Russians turn to Fossum and the other American on the station, Ron Garan, to let them know who was in charge now? Hardly, Fossum remembered. “There were more jokes about us having food for a year because Atlantis really supplied us. Meanwhile, they lived from Progress vehicle to Progress. They had no food supplies. For them, this was a cornucopia that was almost unimaginable.”
Get the flag back
The space shuttle retired five years ago this month. The orbiters are now in museums across the country and the men and women who flew aboard will never forget them. Ferguson ended up at Boeing, where he helps develop its Starliner spacecraft. That vehicle competes with SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to be the first to launch humans into space from Florida. Five years after that last shuttle flight, Ferguson remains fit and healthy. He’s ready to fly again. Ars asked Ferguson if he would not only be the one to leave the flag aboard the station, but become the astronaut to get him back as commander of that first Starliner. “Oh, that’s a long way off, Mr. Berger,” he replied. “We’re not making anything official anytime soon.”
List image by NASA