Before a crowd of thousands, and with millions more watching on television and online, the space shuttle Atlantis launched into space—and history—on July 8, 2011. The liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, was the 135th and final launch of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program.
Commander Chris Ferguson led the 13-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). His crew spent their time in low-Earth orbit performing such tasks as transferring 9,000 pounds of food and other supplies to the ISS and packing up two and a half tons of waste to haul back home. In addition, the astronauts conducted experiments (including one involving an iPhone), granted interviews to media outlets back on Earth, and even took a call from President Obama. Just before dawn on July 21, Atlantis returned safely to Earth, marking the official end of the space shuttle program.
The space shuttle program lifted off in 1981 with the voyage of Columbia. Over three decades, Americans shared in the program’s triumphs and tragedies. We mourned the seven astronauts who lost their lives on Challenger in 1986 and the seven who perished on Columbia in 2003. Despite these setbacks, NASA conducted many successful space shuttle missions. Besides helping build and equip the ISS, the space shuttle launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.
The United States is now without any means of independently sending humans into space. Temporarily, NASA will rely on paying for seats aboard capsules propelled by Russian Soyuz rockets. By 2015, private American companies may be in a position to send astronauts into space. Beyond that, NASA hopes to secure funding in order to design and test the next generation of rockets and spacecraft that could take humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030.
Image credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Tom Farrar
- NASA Shifts Focus as Atlantis Landing Ends Shuttle Era
Learn about the history of the space shuttle program, the details of the Atlantis mission, and future prospects for America’s role in space exploration.
(Source: USA Today, July 21, 2011)
- Space Shuttle: 30 Years of Fascinating Facts
Research three decades of space shuttle history and trivia.
(Source: CBS News, July 21, 2011)
- Space Shuttle Era Ends with Atlantis
View an amazing 41-photo gallery of the final space shuttle mission.
(Source: The Globe, July 22, 2011)
- Space Shuttles United: A Video Tribute
Watch this remarkable Nature video that combines footage of all 135 space shuttle missions.
(Source: The Guardian, July 8, 2011)
- Shuttle Launch Marks End of Era
Listen to a 5-minute “sound portrait” recapping the history of the space shuttle program, produced by Nathan Bernier of KUT radio in Austin, TX.
(Source: kut.org, July 8, 2011)