CAPE CANAVERAL — On the eve of NASA's historic, wheel-stopping end to the shuttle program, the four astronauts making the final journey completed one last task.
They released the very last satellite to be launched from a space shuttle. It popped out of a can Wednesday: a little 8-pound box covered with experimental solar cells.
During the three decades of the shuttle era, 180 satellites and other spacecraft have been deployed by the entire fleet — from tiny ones like Wednesday's PicoSat to mega-ton whoppers like the Hubble Space Telescope.
As soon as the mini-satellite was on its way, astronaut Rex Walheim read a poem that he wrote to mark the occasion. It was the first of many tributes planned over the next few days; on Wednesday evening, the Empire State Building in New York was going to light up in red, white and blue in honor of the space shuttle program.Flight controllers applauded back in Houston.
On this last full day of this last mission, shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson told the controllers, "I'd love to have each and every one of you to stand up and take a bow, a round of applause. Then there would be no one to applaud and there would be nobody to watch the vehicle . . . but believe me, our hearts go out to you."
Ferguson and his three crewmates checked their critical flight systems for today's planned 5:56 a.m. landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, not quite an hour before sunrise. Everything worked perfectly. Excellent weather was forecast to wind up the 135th flight of the space shuttle program.
The astronauts and the flight controllers who will guide them home said Wednesday they were starting to feel a rush of emotions.
"It's going to be tough," Ferguson said in a series of TV interviews. "It's going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years. But we're going to try to keep it upbeat."
Atlantis is the last of the shuttles to be retired. It will remain at Kennedy Space Center, eventually going on display at the visitors complex.