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Tonight, workers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida will make a solemn journey. They will slowly escort space shuttle Atlantis to the launch pad, where it will be prepped for the last space shuttle mission ever. That's planned for July.
As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it's a very personal mission for the people who take the shuttle on this first leg of its final voyage into space.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The space shuttle carries astronauts up into orbit. But first, workers on the ground have to carry the shuttle to the launch pad. That's because the shuttle, its booster rockets, and its fuel tank are all put together in a tall building several miles away.
The fully assembled shuttle is a huge, heavy and delicate object. And it needs to be transported standing upright. To do this tricky balancing act, NASA relies on a massive beast of a machine called the crawler.
The crawler looks like a cross between a flatbed truck and a tank. It guzzles gas going only 32 feet per gallon. It is the biggest self-powered land vehicle in the world.
Mr. BILL COUCH (NASA): If you can picture you're going down your interstate, you have a nice grass median in between you and you're in a vehicle that actually drives across the entire thing. So you're driving on all four lanes plus the grass in between you.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Bill Couch. Only six people are certified to drive the crawler. He's one of them. Not on the interstate of course, but on the crawlerway, a special road to the launch pad about 3.5 miles long.
Mr. COUCH: And the crawlerway is constructed such that, you know, it can hold and manage 18 million pounds. You drive off the crawlerway, you start sinking.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So it will take skill and concentration to move Atlantis to the pad. The drivers will take turns through the night so they stay fresh, because the trip takes hours.
The crawler is a slow giant. The speedometer in its cab only goes up to 2 mph. With the shuttle on board, Couch will go far slower than that.
Mr. COUCH: Even driving at 0.8 miles an hour, if you're not paying attention, it will get away from you. So how does it handle? Eh, you've got to watch it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thousands of people will be watching. Shuttle workers are getting special passes to bring their families to view the final rollout. Mark Nappi will be there with his wife and two teenage sons.
Nappi is an executive with United Space Alliance, the main shuttle contractor. He's worked with the shuttle program for 26 years. He says as the crawler moves Atlantis out of its hangar, the big white spaceship will be lit up by powerful spotlights.
Mr. MARK NAPPI (Vice President, Launch and Recovery Systems, United Space Alliance): And the people that haven't seen it before are just going to ooh and ahh, because it is just an incredible sight. It's a, you know, it's a very large vehicle and they're very close, so they're going to see a perfect shot of it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nappi says the end of the shuttle program is starting to feel real in part because people are losing their jobs.
Mr. NAPPI: You know, that makes it very personal for a lot of us; that we've worked in this program for a long time. We've worked alongside a lot of these people, and we're laying off a lot of people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Driver Bill Couch says he doesn't know what's next for him. But after 18 years of working with the crawler, he's gratified that so many people will see the final rollout.
Mr. COUCH: You've known all your life that you've been carrying this, this, you know, big package, the pride of America. You know, you've been carrying the pride of America on your back the whole time. And now you have the sense that these people standing on the sidelines are actually getting to see what we do.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He expects this last trip to the pad to feel familiar, but it will be different.
Mr. COUCH: It's a bittersweet feeling. You hate to see anything come to an end. You're breaking up your family. You're going to miss the people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Couch says when the shuttle is safely at the launch pad, an event known as hard down, the close-knit crawler team always has a little ritual.
Mr. COUCH: We open up a bag of chips and salsa, and there it is.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so you think for the last one it will still be chips and salsa or is anybody thinking about like a cake or - I assume you wouldn't drink champagne on the crawler.
Mr. COUCH: No, no champagne. But it will probably be the same ceremony we have done for every other hard down, as we will have our chips and salsa.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then they'll back up the crawler and drive away, leaving the space shuttle behind.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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