Atlantis: The final space shuttle to enter retirement

Shuttle will remain at Kennedy Space Center

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - This is it. Until now there was still a faint heartbeat, a bit of a pulse. But Friday, space shuttle program veterans will have sent the final orbiter into retirement: Atlantis.

"We will look after her as long as we are allowed to do so," says Stephanie Stilson, who spent a decade preparing the shuttle Discovery for each flight.

After the shuttle program ended, Stilson was put in charge of readying each vehicle for retirement. "You can definitely sense a feeling of wanting to hold onto Atlantis as long as we can," she says.

Once those giant doors at the vehicle assembly building close behind Atlantis, there will be finality. "I'm not sure if that will really sink in until Atlantis is out of sight," says Stilson.

Unlike Discovery and Endeavour, Atlantis is staying close to home and won't get to make any final glamorous flyovers. The shuttle will be towed just about 10 miles on Friday to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, its new home. Along the way, there will a ceremony and a stop at the space center's Exploration Park, where people can get a close look.

Atlantis flew in space 33 times during its career. Its final landing was July 21, 2011, marking the end of the space shuttle program.

The shuttle program was certainly far more than just vehicles that flew in space. It wasn't just about the astronauts who flew them or the phenomenal accomplishments and the horrific tragedies.

Sure, these machines seemed to take on anthropomorphic characteristics. But above all, the program was about the people who built the machines. It was about the people who cared for them and got them ready to fly.

Many of these are people are out of work. Some have found employment. Many are hoping to land jobs with the commercial space companies, but their workforces are much smaller.

United Space Alliance, which handled shuttle processing, has laid off about 5,800 employees, more than 4,000 of whom were at the Kennedy Space Center. Some were kept on to finish the work of prepping the orbiters for retirement; those 300 will be gone by January.

"The ones that received their notices for December were sad to see things come to an end, but they also seemed at peace with it," says Stilson. "We have known this moment was coming for a very long time. The ones still here feel fortunate that they were allowed to stay this long," she added.

A NASA employee, she wasn't impacted directly by the layoffs, but she has been affected by friends lost and people hurting. For the next year, Stilson is going to spend some time at NASA headquarters in Washington working on future exploration, but it won't be the same. "Once you've worked at KSC, it is hard to find anything comparable," she says.

NASA is doing everything it can to talk about the future of space exploration and how grand it will be. For now, other than commercial company successes, not much is concrete. It really is about the memories.

"Looking back over my entire career," says Stilson, "the one that stands out the most is the launch and landing of the 'return to flight' mission after the loss of Columbia." She adds, "The team had been through so much, losing the crew and the vehicle, but they were adamant that we would fly again and prove that we could overcome the tragedy and continue to do great work in honor of the crew's memory."

Stilson wraps up saying, "I am so grateful to have been part of the shuttle program to the very end, and I doubt anything I do in the future will ever compare to the memories I have collected over the past 23 years."