Right Stuff, Wrong Time
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Credit: Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle / AP
Doug Hurley, the pilot on the Atlantis' final flight, seems, even more than Ferguson, a throwback to NASA's rough-and-tumble past. Hurley is a flat-topped Marine Corps colonel who drives a pewter F-150 pickup. He lists his interests on his official bio as "hunting, cycling, and attending as many NASCAR races as possible," and he describes himself as "just this guy from upstate New York who loved to fly airplanes."

But when I met Hurley inside Johnson Space Center's Building 9, the hangar where NASA houses many of its spacecraft-training mock-ups, the old era was in the process of being dismantled. Our first stop was the middeck of one of the building's three space shuttle replicas, where eight months earlier the Atlantis' crew members had performed some of their final training exercises. The vehicle remained just as they'd left it  – a wall of 35 metal drawers still had colored stickers on it, marking the possessions of each crew member, and four canvas sleeping sacks hung from the walls. As we left the cabin, Hurley motioned to the shuttles and said, "I think they've managed to give away all of them to somebody. They're headed to universities and museums, so they're going to great use. But put another way, it's obviously pretty sad."

Over the course of its three decades, the space shuttle was often maligned as a deadly budget sinkhole  – a vehicle that had capped America's spaceflight ambitions at low Earth orbit and killed two of its crews. But every astronaut I spoke with was quick to defend the shuttle as the most capable spacecraft ever built, and the only one in history that really needed a pilot. In 1959, when Chuck Yeager was asked by reporters if he regretted not being selected for NASA's first astronaut class, he snorted, "There won't be any flying to do... a monkey's gonna make the first flight." And it was true: The pilot of America's first "manned" spaceflight was not Alan Shepard but a chimpanzee named Ham. When the majestic, winged space shuttle made its first flight 20 years after Ham's mission, though, NASA didn't select a chimpanzee as its commander; it chose its most experienced pilot  – John Young, the commander of Apollo 16 and a famed Navy aviator. After Young and his copilot, Bob Crippen, landed the shuttle Columbia safely back at Edwards Air Force Base (the same high desert grounds above which Yeager had broken the sound barrier), Young descended the steps and danced a jig. It was the first and only manned maiden flight of a space vehicle, and it was far from guaranteed to succeed. NASA recently recalculated the chances of mission failure (i.e., death) at one in 12.

When Ferguson, Hurley, and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus made the final shuttle flight 30 years later, the mission was safer and less glamorous, but it still held allure for the kind of astronaut trained to value operational expertise above all else. Forty-five seconds after launch, as the Atlantis roared toward Mach 25, a warning siren blared out across the flight deck, signaling a potential leak. For a moment it looked like the last crew might have to execute a shuttle first: a return-to-launch-site abort, which Hurley described to me with gusto as an almost kamikaze maneuver that would force the spacecraft to fly backward through the rocket plume until it had dissipated enough energy and fuel to land safely back at Cape Canaveral. "The common verbiage is that the abort is certified," Hurley said, meaning NASA's engineers had declared it safe, "[but] John Young would always say, 'It's certified to kill you.' Of course, if they ever had tried to see if it actually worked, all of us test pilots would have said, 'I'm doing it.'"

The siren turned out to be a false alarm, and the Atlantis proceeded to the ISS to deliver five tons of cargo  – a year's worth of supplies. Hurley described the mission, not without pride, as "blue-collar, brunt-force hard work."