The theater of American space flight will change forever as NASA concludes the final space shuttle mission this month while preparing the new replacement rocket for future human space travel away from earth orbit.
Following thirty years of space shuttle flights, Atlantis' mission will mark a historic benchmark as she set sails on the sunset of the program's 135 flights.
Led by commander Chris Ferguson, the last shuttle crew are all space veterans and include pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus.
Standing a top her launch pad, technicians are working around the clock to ensure this mission reaches orbit and her port-of-call in good shape.
NASA is watching the weather as a tropical wave moves west and effects the weather during Friday. Air Force weather officer Kathy Winters stated today only a 40% chance of favorable weather around launch time.
Thunderstorms the day before will likely slow down work to a stop as technicians work to ready the ship, including the retraction of the rotating service structure at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday.
Atlantis will carry a bus size cargo module known as Raffaello loaded with tons of fresh supplies for the space station, and a storage rack which includes spare parts and hardware.
"I certainly feel honored to be part of the last crew," Magnus said recently. "And the thing I think that I feel the most honored about is it requires a special skill set to operate with a crew of four and I’m very flattered that it’s felt that I have that skill set that is needed to do that."
NASA's final space shuttle flight will launch on Friday morning with a crew of four veteran astronauts to begin a twelve day voyage to the International Space Station. Launch time is planned for 11:26:46 a.m. EDT from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Two days after launch, the orbiter will dock with the orbiting outpost at 11:09 a.m. on Sunday, followed by hatch opening between the two spacecraft 75 minutes later.
The 21-foot long Raffaello module will be plucked from the aft section of Atlantis payload bay at 5:36 a.m. on Monday, and docked to the station's Node 2.
A pair of apple iPhone 4's will travel aboard Atlantis for a series of tests by the station's crew for improving future technologies with the popular phone.
Each iPhone 4 model will have a special application loaded to test the calibration of the smart phone in space, and uses for it's camera as the crew aims it toward the earth in a series of photography tests.
The twin iPhones will be housed inside a NanoRacks cube carrier when shuttle Atlantis lifts-off on July 8 from the Kennedy Space Center.
Experimental tests also include how solar radiation effects the smart phone's memory, and test how it may aide in navigation by photographing a series of locations on earth.
The duel phones are intended for tests by NASA astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, and several of the six space station crew members following Atlantis' departure on July 18.
A one day mission extension is likely and will be added a few days after the shuttle docks.
Atlantis is due to separate from the space station for the final time at 1:59 a.m. on July 18.
Pilot Hurley will fly Atlantis out to a distance of 400-feet and then begin a 360-degree fly around of the complex, while Magnus and Walheim use digital cameras to photograph the space station in detail.
The final two days of Atlantis' flight will focus on stowing equipment and to share with the world one final end-of-shuttle ceremony.
Atlantis crew will discuss on NASA TV the history of what shuttle has done for not just America but the entire planet, and take a look into the future of human space flight.
Landing is planned back at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility Runway 15/33 on July 20 at 7:06 a.m.
This mission will be known not for the science and engineering support it provided for the space station, but for one thing -- the final space shuttle flight.
The last time humans will soar through space in a winged spacecraft and then land on a runway for years to come.
As July closes so does this chapter of the space program as NASA turns to the private sector for a space craft to carry Americans back into space.
Private space companies such as SpaceX will need around five years to be ready with a suitable manned space craft to launch. In the meantime, NASA will be paying Russia nearly $45 million each time to send an American to the space station thru 2016.
It was also one warm July in which American space travel stopped in 1975, for six years, as NASA prepared for the space shuttle's arrival.
Now, fade out shuttle - Fade in the future.
NASA hopes that the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle will be America's next spacecraft to carry humans out of low earth orbit such as the Moon.
NASA projects the Orion vehicle will not be ready for it's first flight until around 2016 as NASA decides what rocket it will launch a top.
Then there is the need to build the launch pad around the rocket's size and fueling specifications.
MPCV is built by Lockheed Martin Corp. in Colorado, the module will have a separate service module which will be jettisoned prior to it's return to earth. NASA states "this module can also transport unpressurized cargo and scientific payloads" during flights.
The 23 ton crewed vehicle will launch on a heavy-lift rocket toward a destination past the space station and beyond low earth orbit to the moon.
NASA hopes to announce what that large multi-stage rocket will be later this year.
(Follow Charles Atkeison via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy for real time aerospace news and updates.)