PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A Philadelphia native is in the driver’s seat as Atlantis closes the book on three decades of NASA space shuttle history.

What a moment the final liftoff will be — for those of us watching and listening, and also for the shuttle crew of four, led by Commander Chris Ferguson.

Ferguson says he’ll be thinking about tragedies and triumphs alike — from the unimaginable loss of lives on Challenger and Columbia to the unparalleled successes the shuttle helped make of the Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station:

“There are no mornings I don’t wake up and pinch myself and realize how fortunate I am to be in this position.”

Atlantis is taking Ferguson on his third shuttle skyride; it’s the Archbishop Ryan High School and Drexel University grad’s second time in the commander’s seat:

“We’re very lucky just to be a part of it. It’s not just so much saying goodbye as it is a celebration of 30 years of tremendous success the space shuttle has had.”

Hear Ian Bush’s full interview with Chris Ferguson in this CBS Philly podcast…

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Ferguson will be a couple of hundred miles above Northeast Philly, but he’s taking something to remind him of his childhood home:

“I’m sure I’ll have a memento or two of the city I grew up in — maybe a Tastykake or two.”

Last time, it was Chase Utley who tagged along — in jersey form.

As for those who aspire to be future Chris Fergusons, he says don’t hang your heads over the shuttle’s last gasp:

“Science is science. We’re going to be on the International Space Station conducting world-class science for hopefully decades to come. The motivation will still be out there.”

He’s commanding Atlantis on a retirement tour among the stars, with a final shuttle rendezvous with the orbiting outpost.   Tradition calls on the Archbishop Ryan and Drexel grad to come up with monumental words to mark the momentous occasion:

“I do lay in bed at night and wonder — how do you possibly capture the hopes, dreams, and memories of the past three decades in one statement after the space shuttle’s wheels have stopped. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible.”

Whatever he comes up with, Ferguson says it’ll be just one small step in a long history of giant leaps.

Reported by Ian Bush, KYW Newsradio