By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - It's been 28 years since NASA launched a four-person shuttle crew, but that will be the number of astronauts slated to fly on Atlantis for the program's last flight, a 12-day cargo run to the International Space Station.
The U.S. space agency downsized the crew from the usual six or seven members because there is no shuttle available for a rescue flight in the event Atlantis is too damaged to attempt the return trip home.
NASA instead will rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which fly with two pilots and one passenger per vehicle, to bring the astronauts back if needed.
Christopher Ferguson, 49, a soft-spoken retired Navy captain, is the commander of the crew, which has dubbed themselves "The Final Four."
He said he never expected to be making the flight, which initially was just a standby rescue mission for the last shuttle crew.
"I'd given it a 50-50 shot at best," he said.
But last year, NASA decided to fly Atlantis with a year's worth of supplies for the station, an insurance policy of sorts in case the new companies hired to haul cargo to the outpost encounter delays.
Ferguson, a married father of three, is a drummer in the astronauts' semi-professional band, MaxQ. He grew up in Philadelphia. Before joining NASA in 1998, the Top Gun pilot flew several types of aircraft for the Navy. This will be his third spaceflight.
Assisting Ferguson with piloting Atlantis is Douglas Hurley, 44, a Marine Corps colonel who grew up in Apalachin, New York. He is married to astronaut Karen Nyberg and father to their 17-month-old son.
Hurley, who has made one previous shuttle mission, plans to remain an astronaut after the shuttle stops flying and is interested in a long-duration mission on the station.
Atlantis' flight engineer Rex Walheim, 48, is a retired Air Force colonel who grew up in San Carlos, California. Married with two teen-age sons, Walheim plans to take some mental snapshots during his third trip into space.
"Last time when the main engines started, it just felt like the whole thing was shaking to pieces. I could barely read the displays. This time, I want to feel the whole kick-in-the-pants," he said.
The veteran spacewalker will not head outside the station during Atlantis' mission, although he will supervise a spacewalk two station astronauts plan to make.
Completing the Atlantis crew is Sandra Magnus, 46, of Belleville, Illinois.
Magnus has the unglamorous job of "load master." She is responsible for making sure the five tons of food, clothing and other supplies flying up on the shuttle make it to the station, and all the old equipment and trash that need to come back to Earth are packed on the shuttle.
The flight, Magnus' third, is a bit of homecoming. She served as a member of the live-aboard station crew from November 2008 to March 2009.
Asked what her future holds, Magnus said she has not had time to think about it.
"It's like you've always wanted to be an astronaut your whole entire life and now you've done what you've always wanted to do," she said. "What do you do next?"
Atlantis is scheduled to launch at 11:26 a.m. EDT on Friday, but NASA authorities say it could be delayed because of bad weather.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Eric Walsh)