- Associated Press - Friday, July 8, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Four astronauts are taking space shuttle Atlantis for one last spin _ the very last one of the 30-year space shuttle era.

It’s the smallest crew since the early shuttle flights _ usually there are six or seven. The size was necessitated by the need to use Russian Soyuz capsules in case commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew get stranded aboard the International Space Station.

With the other two shuttles already retired, there isn’t another one left to rescue the Atlantis astronauts if their ship were severely damaged in flight.

Joining Ferguson on the 12-day flight are co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, experienced space fliers all.

“We all want to be able to remember this,” Ferguson said. “We want to be able to pass to our children and our children’s children that we were fortunate enough to be a part of the space shuttle.”

A brief look at the crew:

With only four on board, commander Christopher Ferguson likes to point out that this is a retro astronaut crew. NASA hasn’t had such a small space shuttle crew since the sixth flight in 1983.

That explains the black suits that the astronauts wore for their formal preflight news conference. Ferguson couldn’t resist, especially given his co-pilot’s Project Mercury-throwback flattop cut. (Pilot Douglas Hurley’s a Marine.)

“No solemnity with this event,” Ferguson insisted. “It’s a celebration. Thirty years.”

He scoffs at those who said they shunned NASA’s last shuttle launch because they perceived it as a funeral. But he acknowledges it’s like mourning a friend.

“We personify the shuttle. It’s a living, breathing entity to a lot of us. They have their quirks,” he said.

“You hate to let your first car go because it meant so much to you, and it hurts to let the space shuttle go.”

Ferguson, 49, grew up in Philadelphia, delivering the daily Inquirer as a boy. He joined the Navy and became a fighter pilot, attending the famed Topgun school. From there, it was on to test pilot training.

NASA chose him as an astronaut in 1998. This is his third space shuttle flight. The retired Navy captain wants to stick around NASA to help with the next step in human exploration, whatever it may be.

“Space business is in my blood,” he said. He would love to see astronauts go to Mars, “the Holy Grail in the near term.”

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