CAPE CANAVERAL — Space shuttle Atlantis is set and ready for its 32nd and final voyage. When Atlantis blasts off — show time is 2:20 p.m. Friday — only two more missions will remain before the shuttle program ends.
Three miles from the pad, the firing room where launch controllers will give one final "go" is decorated with photos of Atlantis launching, flying in space and landing over the past 25 years. The collage includes patches from each mission, including the last, which depicts Atlantis sailing into the sunset.
Perhaps the only people in town who refuse to fuss over Atlantis' last flight are the six astronauts who will ride the ship into the history books. That's because NASA's future is fuzzy. Hope persists that Atlantis will ride yet again, launch director Mike Leinbach noted Wednesday.
"The six of us are calling this the first last flight of Atlantis and I think that's appropriate because we really don't know what she's going to do next," explained commander Kenneth Ham.
Shuttle managers prefer calling it Atlantis' "last planned flight."
What they mean is that when Atlantis returns from its 12-day trip, it won't be dismantled and head off to a museum. Instead, NASA will prep the shuttle as usual for a possible rescue mission for the very last flight, Endeavour's in November.
Longtime astronaut Jerry Ross, now a NASA manager, is one of only two people to fly in space seven times — five on Atlantis. At a news conference last week, Ross rattled down the list of Atlantis-by-the-numbers: 31 flights, 282 days in orbit, 116 million miles, 4,462 orbits of Earth, 185 crew members.
The upcoming mission will tack on 12 days, 186 orbits, 4 million miles and four astronauts.
The Atlantis crew will perform three spacewalks to replace batteries and install spare parts at the space station, which NASA plans to keep running until 2020.