HOUSTON - A Coal Township native playing a key role in today's NASA mission has a bittersweet feeling when considering it's the last shuttle launch since the program started 30 years ago.

"It's going to be a historic moment that I'm glad to be part of. It's a little sad, though, to see a great program come to an end," said Kevin Metrocavage, 38, of League City, Texas.

The 1991 graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes High School will be the attitude determination and control officer (ADCO) when the Space Shuttle Atlantis departs from the International Space Station after its final mission, scheduled for 11:26 a.m. today. He will be at the helm in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, responsible for verifying the International Space Station (ISS) regained control following Atlantis departure. Metrocavage will then coordinate a maneuver of the ISS while the shuttle crew conducts a final fly-around of the ISS prior to the Orbiter re-entry and landing.

This will be Metrocavage's 19th shuttle mission as a flight controller/instructor for the International Space Station. As part of his duties in the Motion Control Systems Group, he is responsible for the guidance, navigation and control of the ISS, and often interacts with Russian flight controllers in Moscow, where he has frequently traveled to support ISS operations.

However, on Thursday afternoon, he said he was relaxing and preparing himself for the moment.

"You have to focus on your training. You go into it with months of practice and meeting and discussions, and you prepare yourself," he said. "When the time comes, you go and execute how you were trained and your instincts cut in."

He explained one of the primary objectives of the mission is to supply the space station with more experiments, supplies, logistics and spare parts. The shuttle launches with a Multi-Purpose Logistics

Module (MPLM), which acts as a pressurized "moving van" and is 15 feet wide by 21 feet long. Once attached to the space station, the transfer of approximately 7.5 tons of supplies will be carried out by space station and space shuttle astronauts during the 12-day mission, nine of which are docked to the space station.

New challenges

Although this mission marks the end of the three-decade program, it doesn't mean the end of human spaceflight at NASA, he said. The astronauts living on the space station since 2000 will continue to live and work there until at least 2020.

He is excited for the future of space exploration, saying he will continue to work with the space station for the next nine years. Otherwise, he looks forward to working with commercial space flight and new vehicles being developed.

"It's tough right now, and some folks will be looking for new challenges," he said.

Space flight for exploring - as Columbus and others explored the globe - and going to the moon are only two parts of the important aspects of NASA, he said.

"There are a lot of things that come back and help us with every day life on earth," he said, noting spin-offs in the medical, structural and even sports-related areas.

Living the dream

Metrocavage was recently presented with NASA's "Spaceflight Awareness Honoree" Award, one of the highest awards presented by NASA and industry. As part of this honor, he was able to witness the final roll-out of the Atlantis from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Launch Pad at Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, Fla.

He has a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

As many children hope to work with astronauts and space exploration when they grow up, Metrocavage was no exception.

"I was always a big 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' fan. Working for NASA was always a dream of mine," he said.

Even now, decades later, he still reflects on each mission and finds the same wonderment.

"You think back and say it is pretty cool. It definitely is still exciting for me, to be part of the group that controls the international space station," he said.

You can follow Metrocavage's daily updates of his experiences working the last shuttle mission from Twitter @Metro_Spaceport.