Call this show ‘Last in Space’

As­tro­naut Chris Fer­guson, the pride of North­east Philly, is ready to take the At­lantis on the fi­nal flight of the na­tion’s space shuttle pro­gram.

As Chris Fer­guson pre­pares to com­mand the space shuttle At­lantis, the Far North­east nat­ive is heartened to know that fam­ily and friends will make the trip to Flor­ida for the launch and re­turn land­ing.

“I’ve en­joyed an in­cred­ible amount of sup­port from the people in the Phil­adelphia area,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of Philly folks.”

Fer­guson, 49, a cap­tain in the United States Navy, is the pride of St. Martha Gram­mar School and Arch­bish­op Ry­an High School. He grew up on Amity Road.

In 1984, he re­ceived a de­gree in mech­an­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing from Drexel Uni­versity. He earned a mas­ter’s in aero­naut­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing from the Navy Post­gradu­ate School in 1991. He’s been as­signed to the John­son Space Cen­ter in Hou­s­ton since 1998.

At­lantis will launch on Fri­day at 11:26 a.m. at Cape Canaver­al. Fer­guson will lead a four-per­son mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. He’ll be joined by pi­lot Doug Hur­ley and mis­sion spe­cial­ists Sandy Mag­nus and Rex Wal­heim.

The voy­age will be his third to the space sta­tion. In 2006, he was the pi­lot on a 12-day At­lantis trip. In 2008, he was the com­mand­er on a 15-day trip aboard En­deav­our.

On the up­com­ing 12-day mis­sion, Fer­guson and the oth­ers will de­liv­er a mul­tipur­pose lo­gist­ics mod­ule filled with sup­plies and spare parts to sus­tain op­er­a­tions at the space sta­tion; test the tools, tech­no­lo­gies and tech­niques needed to ro­bot­ic­ally re­fuel satel­lites in space; and re­turn an am­mo­nia pump that re­cently failed on the sta­tion.

When the shuttle re­turns, it’ll be parked for good. NASA is end­ing the space shuttle pro­gram. In its place, the agency will fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing new space­ships and rock­ets for ex­plor­a­tion of as­ter­oids, the moon and Mars.

Fer­guson likened the end of the shuttle pro­gram to get­ting rid of a first car. The vehicle is spe­cial, but too costly to keep.

“We do feel like we’re mourn­ing a friend, but we’ll get over it,” he said dur­ing a June 30 con­fer­ence call with re­port­ers.

At the same time, he said the fi­nal launch should be a cel­eb­ra­tion of the space shuttle’s 30-year run.

The pro­gram star­ted in 1981, and At­lantis made its maid­en voy­age in ’85. The up­com­ing mis­sion will be the 33rd for At­lantis and 135th for the pro­gram.

At­lantis will be on per­man­ent dis­play at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter. En­deav­our will re­tire to the Cali­for­nia Sci­ence Cen­ter. Dis­cov­ery will re­main at the Smith­so­ni­an’s Na­tion­al Air & Space Mu­seum. En­ter­prise, which was used only for test­ing, will be housed at the In­trep­id Sea, Air & Space Mu­seum in Man­hat­tan.

In the days be­fore the launch, the as­tro­nauts are al­lowed to spend time only with their im­me­di­ate fam­il­ies. Fer­guson and his wife, Sandra, have three chil­dren, an 18-year-old daugh­ter and sons ages 15 and 17. Once the shuttle re­turns, there will be a lar­ger cel­eb­ra­tion.

Fer­guson, who ad­mits to some nervous­ness, said he’s been told by nu­mer­ous people who view a shuttle launch that the event is a life-al­ter­ing ex­per­i­ence.

As for the shuttle it­self, Fer­guson calls it a “tech­no­lo­gic­al mar­vel.” The gov­ern­ment has en­trus­ted him to take the shuttle to space for two weeks and bring it home safely.

“That is one tre­mend­ous feel­ing,” he said.

Fer­guson said he loves everything about space, in­clud­ing the food, air and com­fort level. As for things he misses while in space, he points to everything from moun­tains to freshly cut grass to fall­ing snow to, of course, his fam­ily.

On the up­com­ing trip, he will take one of his wife’s neck­laces as a way of keep­ing her close. He de­scribes her as a “closet space geek.”

Dur­ing the mis­sion, Fer­guson and the oth­er as­tro­nauts will look out the win­dows and take pic­tures, but they’ll mostly be fo­cused on their work.

“We’re go­ing to be ex­traordin­ar­ily busy,” he said.

Look­ing ahead, Fer­guson will re­main with NASA even though the space shuttle will be no more.

“The space busi­ness is in my blood,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot to of­fer.”

There’s an­oth­er good reas­on for him to stay act­ive. He’ll have three chil­dren in col­lege in a few years. “I can’t quit any­thing at this point,” he said.

Fer­guson said it’s fair to ask wheth­er the space shuttle has been worth the cost. He be­lieves it has been ef­fect­ive, point­ing to the de­vel­op­ment of the space sta­tion.

“The space sta­tion will en­able us to go well bey­ond low-Earth or­bit,” he said.

The fu­ture space race, in Fer­guson’s view, will be a mara­thon. He thinks NASA can travel to an as­ter­oid or set up a per­man­ent colony on the moon in 50 to 100 years.

In the next 30 to 40 years, he is hope­ful that Amer­ica can get to Mars.

“That, to me, is the holy grail in the near term,” he said. ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­

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