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The historic last launch of Atlantis: The Ticket's front row seat to America's final shuttle flight

July 6, 2011 |  6:44 am

Atlantis ready to go

Once upon a time there was a high school senior so fascinated with space discoveries and exploration that he organized a school-wide petition drive to suspend classes so the student body (namely his student body) could watch TV coverage of the first American orbit of the earth.

That was 18,033 days ago, when John Glenn spent 296 minutes in orbit, circling the world three whole times. For comparison, the shuttle Discovery made 5,830 orbits during its 39 space flights.

This week, after those full 49 years four months and 16 days, that same former student goes to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral as one of a few score lucky lottery winners in NASA's final space shuttle Tweetup.

We will have front-row seats for the last of 135 United States space shuttle launches. For the next several days we will be posting occasional up-close items here on The Ticket and regular tweets from @latimestot hashtag #NASATweetup.

According to the ongoing countdown schedule, late Friday morning Eastern time, Atlantis is set to fly away atop those thunderous pillars of flame for a 12-day mission to stock up and empty out refuse from the International Space Station about 250 miles above.AtlantisCrewOrngeSMDHRWCFJohnRaouxAP

Many have followed the initially tardy but gallant and amazingly successful American space efforts since that autumn morning in 1957 when the eerie sound of the Soviets' pioneering Sputnik satellite beeped out over the radio.

There is now a real sense of sadness with this final shuttle flight after some 30 years. All the achievements. The twin disasters. The courageous men and women who designed, built, tested, prepared, flew, rode in and died in these space trucks.

Even retired astronauts have spoken out against the crimped future of America's manned space program. These include Neil Armstrong, whose left boot touching the moon we watched on a giant screen at Kennedy International Airport while interviewing other awed witnesses in 1969. (Scroll down for the historic video clip.)

NASA officials try to put the best light on the Obama administration's decision to scrap the Bush administration's manned space plans, the return explorations to the moon and beyond and to let go thousands of highly-skilled technicians and space workers.

There's much brave talk about exciting new adventures ahead relying on collaborations with commercial rocket operations and other countries for President Obama's vague vow to someday land on an unnamed asteroid for some reason. Hopefully, the hopes are fulfilled for science and for the existing generation of astronauts trained with endless places to go and, now, no way to get there.

A new Pew Research Center poll this week finds that 55% view the space shuttle program as a good investment and nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe that U.S. leadership in space is essential, thinking of the scientific, industrial, economic, medical and even military lessons learned from such expensive research.

At the moment, thunderstorms could jeopardize the 11:26 a.m. ET Friday launch. But whenever Atlantis flies for the final time, it will carry only a partial crew -- flight Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.

That's not to save charges on checked baggage. That's because, due to all the preceding vehicle retirements, NASA has no ready backup in case of an Atlantis emergency. If, say, Atlantis lost some heat tiles during launch and was deemed unsafe to endure the temperatures of reentry for landing, it would stay parked in space.

And the American crew members of the once-pioneering United States space program would eventually return to Earth one by one in borrowed seats aboard Russian space capsules.


Where each U.S. space shuttle will live in retirement

California to Mars: Another pioneering rover begins its long journey

President Obama  speaks on the future of U.S. space exploration: Yes, but....



-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: Gary Rothstein / EPA (Atlantis poised and ready to go); John Raoux / Associated Press (Atlantis' final crew members, from left, Sandra Magnus, Doug Hurley, Rex Walheim and Chris Ferguson).