"Good morning, Atlantis," astronaut Shannon Lucid radioed from mission control late Wednesday. "The wakeup music this morning was for the entire crew, and it was also for all the men and women who put their heart and soul into the shuttle program for all of these years."
"Thanks, Shannon, what a classic patriotic song, it's so appropriate for what will likely be the shuttle's final day in orbit," commander Christopher Ferguson replied from orbit. "Thank you to America for supporting this program. We'll see you on the ground in a few short hours, hopefully."
Flying upside down and backward over the Indian Ocean, Ferguson and pilot Douglas "Chunky" Hurley planned to fire the shuttle's twin braking rockets for three minutes and 17 seconds starting at 4:49:04 a.m. EDT, slowing the ship by about 223 miles per hour to drop out of orbit and set up a landing on runway 15 at 5:56 a.m.
A second landing opportunity is available one orbit later, at 7:32:55 a.m. if the weather or some other issue prevents an on-time re-entry. NASA is not staffing its backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. If Atlantis doesn't make it home Thursday, the crew will remain in orbit an additional day and land Friday.
But the weather appeared ideal early Thursday and entry Flight Director Tony Ceccacci was optimistic about bringing Atlantis' 33rd and final mission to a close.
Assuming an on-time deorbit rocket firing, the shuttle will plunge into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of about 75 miles above the southern Pacific Ocean around 5:25 a.m., enduring the hellish heat of re-entry as it descends along a northeasterly trajectory back toward the Kennedy Space Center.
The flight path will carry Atlantis high above Central America, across the Gulf of Mexico just west of Cuba and on to Florida, approaching the Kennedy Space Center from the southwest.
Ferguson plans to take over manual control at an altitude of about 50,000 feet above the Space Coast, guiding the shuttle through a sweeping 240-degree left turn to line up on runway 15 for the shuttle program's final landing.