When Atlantis touched down yesterday at Cape Canaveral, Fla., the high-flying era of the space shuttles came down to earth as well. After 30 years, the shuttle program, which began on April 12, 1981 with Colombia, has ended with the 135th mission. Atlantis delivered the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module packed with supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station, and retrieved a failed pump unit and other items for the return trip. Atlantis went aloft 33 times, logging over 125 million miles. The last shuttle will become a museum exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center. -- Lane Turner (41 photos total)
The space shuttle Atlantis flies over the Bahamas prior to a perfect docking with the International Space Station on July 10, 2011. Part of a Russian Progress spacecraft docked to the station is in the foreground. (AP Photo/NASA)
Bill Ingalls / NASA via EPA
Space shuttle Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, July 12, 2011. The Atlantis landing marked the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Center. "After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It‘s come to a final stop," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said.
Pierre Ducharme / Reuters
Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 21, 2011. The space shuttle Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet.
David J. Phillip / AP
Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz. lelft, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land Thursday, July 21, 2011, in Houston.
Phaedra Singelis writes
It's hard to photograph something far away in darkness, but photographers still managed to make some beautiful images of the last landing of the shuttle this morning.
More shuttle photos on PhotoBlog
Today marks the end of an era. Three decades of missions came to a close this morning as the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida after a 13-day trip to the International Space Station. All told, the 135 space shuttle missions have racked up more than 542 million miles in low earth orbit. Commander Chris Ferguson piloted the Atlantis to a safe landing at 5:52 a.m., and the spacecraft will soon undergo processing and decommissioning. It has been an emotional experience for residents and workers along Florida's Space Coast -- some 9,000 shuttle engineers, technicians, and other staff are being laid off, and the main tourism draw for the area has come to an end. Shown here, for one last time, is a look at a full shuttle mission, STS-135, the final flight of Atlantis. Also, be sure to see The History of the Space Shuttle, an earlier entry on In Focus. [39 photos]
A view of the space shuttle Atlantis and its payload on July 10, 2011, seen from the International Space Station. At the rear of the cargo bay is the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, packed with supplies and spare parts for the ISS. (NASA)
Jan. 31, 1977: A horse and rider watch as the space shuttle Enterprise is towed from a Rockwell International facility in Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base for a year of flight tests. Townspeople lined the route for a glimpse of the 110-ton shuttle. A 90-wheel transport was used and accompanied by a 20-vehicle convoy.
Never fitted with engines or a working heat shield, the Enterprise was not launched into orbit — it was only used for testing. The craft was used in a series of approach and landing tests — carried aloft in a 747, released and glided to landings at Edwards. Later the Enterprise was used for static tests in Alabama and California.
Los Angeles Times science writer George Alexander covered the public introduction of Enterprise. In the Sept. 18, 1976, edition, he reported:
To the theme music from the now-defunct television series “Star Trek,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration rolled out the first Space Shuttle vehicle at Palmdale Friday and proclaimed the start of a new era in space transportation.
“Ain’t she a beat?” said NASA Associated Administrator John F. Yardley as the big black, white and gray spaceship was towed around the corner of a hangar at Rockwell International Corp.’s Palmdale facility and brought to a halt before a crowd of about 2,000 people…
….some of the actors who appeared in the “Star Trek” series were present. President Ford recently yielded to the petitions of many “Trekkies,” as devotees of the series call themselves, and named the orbiter “Enterprise” after the fictional spaceship flown by the “Star Trek” crew.
Space agency officials had planned to name the space shuttle “Constitution” both in honor of the historic U.S. document and in honor of the early American warship, but were overruled at the last minute by President Ford.
In 1985, Enterprise was transferred to the Smithsonian Institute.
Current plans are for the shuttle Discovery to go to the Smithsonian, with the Enterprise being transferred to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City. The retired Endeavour shuttle is scheduled to come to the California Science Center in Los Angeles by the end of 2012.
All of the images in the above photo gallery were taken by Los Angeles Times photographers except one — the “Star Trek” cast is from NASA.
Additional images from NASA are in this space shuttle photo gallery.
With the flight of Atlantis, the 30-year-plus space shuttle program comes to an end. Six shuttles — five operational and one test vehicle — were built. Two, the Challenger and Columbia, were lost in accidents, killing 14 crew members. The remaining four shuttles will be retired to museums.
This gallery consists of over 50 images released by NASA from the years 1972-2011. Most come from a package moved by Reuters earlier in June. A few others come from Associated Press. I added one important image — the Columbia breakup during reentry — shot by Dr. Scott Lieberman and moved to AP by the Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph.
For thirty years, the shuttle program has launched critical missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Space Station. In that time, two tragic events including the Challenger explosion during launch and the Columbia falling apart on re-entry delayed the program.
The shuttle is the only winged manned spacecraft to achieve orbit and land, and the only reusable space vehicle that has ever made multiple flights into orbit. The shuttle has the most reliable launch record of any rocket now in operation. Since 1981, it has boosted more than 3 million pounds of cargo into orbit. More than than 600 crew members have flown on its missions.
The shuttle program is scheduled for mandatory retirement in 2011, in accord with the directives President George W. Bush issued in the Vision for Space Exploration. The shuttle’s planned successor was to be Project Constellation with its Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles and the Orion Spacecraft; however, in early 2010 the Obama administration asked Congress to instead endorse a scaled-back plan with heavy reliance on the private sector.
This image provided by NASA shows the silhouette of the space shuttle Endeavour in a very unique setting over Earth's colorful horizon photographed by an Expedition 22 crew member prior to STS-130 rendezvous and docking operations with the International Space Station Tuesday Feb. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/NASA) #
Space shuttle Atlantis leaves the Vehicle Assembly Building on its path to pad 39A in preparation for the upcoming STS-125 mission at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008. Atlantis is scheduled to launch Oct. 8.(AP Photo/John Raoux) #
Space Shuttle Atlantis, sitting on top of the crawler transporter, moves out of the vehicle assembly building and to launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center, October 14, 2009 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlantis is making the 3.5-mile journey in preparation for its launch next month to the International Space Station. (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images) #
In this image provided by NASA rollout of space shuttle Discovery is slow-going due to the onset of lightning in the area of Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. First motion of the shuttle out of the Vehicle Assembly Building was at 2:07 a.m.Tuesday Aug. 4, 2009. Launch of Discovery on its STS-128 mission is targeted for late August. (AP Photo courtesy of Justin Dernier, EPA #
The space shuttle Atlantis atop the crawler transporter begins its 3.4 mile trip to the launch pad, upper left, after leaving the Vehicle Assembly building at the Kennedy Space Station in Cape Canaveral. Fla. Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007. Atlantis is scheduled for a March mission to the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove) #
The space shuttle orbiter Columbia is showered with lights in this nocturnal scene at Launch Pad 39A, as preparations are underway for the first flight (STS-1) of NASA's new reusable spacecraft system. Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen are in training for the flight. Photo credit: NASA or National Aeronautics and Space Administration #
The moon is seen near the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-119 as it sits on the launch pad while it is prepared for launch March 11, 2009 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Discovery is being prepared for the scheduled launch date of March 11, 2009 on a mission to the international space station. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images) #
Space shuttle Columbia sits on the launch pad Tuesday, July 20, 1999 as a waterspout appears at left in the backgound at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The flight of Columbia to deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory during its five day mission was delayed for 48 hours when the orbiter's hazardous gas detection system indicated a high concentration of hydrogen in Columbia's aft engine compartment. Following a preliminary evaluation, launch managers concluded the readings were false and rescheduled the launchfor Thursday. Columbia has a crew of five commanded by Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a shuttle flight. The water spout disapated seconds after the photo was taken. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) #
The space shuttle Challenger lifts off Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., at 11:38 a.m., EST, in this January 28, 1986 file photo. The entire crew of seven was lost in the explosion 73 seconds into the launch. The circumstances were different, they were coming home, not vaulting into space, but again there was the familiar jolt to the gut. Space shuttle Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida. (AP Photo/NASA, File) #
The Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off from launch pad 39A on its way to the International Space Station June 8, 2007 from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral Florida. Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled for an 11-day mission to the International Space Station. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images) #
US space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16, 2011 for its final and what will be the penultimate flight for the US shuttle program. "We want to thank all the tens of thousands of employees who have put their hands on this incredible ship," shuttle commander Mark Kelly said moments before liftoff at 8:56 (1256 GMT). AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM #
US space shuttle Atlantis climbs to orbit 19 May 2000 from launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida to begin her ten-day mission to the International Space Station as people watch from across the Indian River in Titusville. Atlantis' seven-person crew is on a mission that will dock with the International Space Station for about a week for service and supply of the station. AFP PHOTO #
The space shuttle Columbia illuminates a cloud during liftoff early Friday morning March 1, 2002 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Columbia and her seven member crew will refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope during the 11-day mission. (AP Photo/NASA, Anita Barrett) #
In this handout photo provided by NASA, the STS-115 external tank falls away from space shuttle Atlantis after launch September 9, 2006. A crew member aboard the shuttle recorded the image with a digital still camera. Mission managers and flight controllers on the ground are studying the handheld pictures along with another group of external tank separation photos recorded by automatic cameras in the umbilical well. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images) #
This photo shows the Space Shuttle Atlantis over a mountainous coastline of Earth as photographed by the three man crew of International Space Station Alpha February 16, 2001 after astronauts from Atlantis delivered and helped install a 1.4 billion US dollar science lab aboard the space station. Atlantis is scheduled to return to earth on February 18, while the crew of space station Alpha, who have been on board since November, are scheduled to return to Earth in March aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. (Photo courtesy of NASA/Newsmakers) #
In this handout photo provided by NASA, the Space Shuttle Discovery approaches the International Space Station for docking July 6, 2006 in Space. Before the link-up occurred, the orbiter "posed" for a thorough series of inspection photos. Discovery is scheduled to be docked with the International Space Station until July 14 and return to Florida on July 16. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images) #
In this handout photo provided by NASA, backdropped by the blackness of space and Earth's horizon, the Space Shuttle Endeavour, docked to the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA-2) on the International Space Station, is featured in this photograph taken by a crewmember during the mission's first planned session of extravehicular activity (EVA) August 15, 2007 in Space. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images) #
This March 1994 file photo shows a technical rendition of the Space Shuttle Atlantis docked to the Kristall module of the Russian Mir Station. The Shuttle/Mir combination, which will be the largest space platform ever assembled, is shown flying over the Lake Baikal region of Russia.AFP PHOTO #
In this NASA handout, mission specialist, Astronaut Stephen K. Robinson, is anchored to a foot restraint on the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm, during his space walk to repair the underside of the space shutttle Discovery August 3, 2005. Space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to return to Earth August 8. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images) #
In this photo released by NASA, astronaut Mike Massimino is photographed through a window of the Space Shuttle Atlantis Sunday, May 17, 2009 during the mission's fourth session of extravehicular activity as work continues to refurbish and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. (AP Photo/NASA) #
The space shuttle Discovery approaches the International Space Station, backdropped by a cloud-covered Earth, in an undated handout photo. NASA's space shuttles, which have been carrying astronauts aloft for 30 years and are soon to be museum pieces, were assigned to their final destinations on April 12, 2011. The Discovery, which completed its final flight in March, is headed to the Smithsonian. (NASA via The New York Times) #
This photo provided by NASA shows, backdropped by Earth's horizon and the blackness of space, the international space station appearing to be very small, as the space shuttle Endeavour pulls away from it, Sunday Aug. 19, 2007. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 6:56 a.m. Sunday. The lower portion of Italy is visible at left. (AP Photo/NASA) #
In this tightly cropped image, made using a solar-filters Takahashi 5-inch refracting telescope and a Canon 5D Mark II digital camera, the NASA space shuttle Atlantis is seen in silhouette against a backdrop of the sun on Tuesday, May 12, 2009, as viewed from Florida, U.S. This image was made before Atlantis and the crew of STS-125 had reached the Hubble Space Telescope for an 11 day mission to upgrade and repair the telescope. Photographer: Thierry Legault/NASA via Bloomberg News #
The Hubble Space Telescope stands in the cargo bay of the space shuttle Atlantis on Wednesday, May 13, 2009. The telescope, a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency, was launched in 1990 and provides data used by astronomers around the world. NASA says that repairs and upgrades being done over 11 days and five spacewalks, will extend its life to 2014 and help it peer deeper into the universe and capture images closer to the time of the Big Bang. Source: NASA via Bloomberg News #
Ten years after its launching and half way through its currently planned lifetime, the Hubble Space Telescope has circled Earth more than 58,000 times, made 271,000 observations and investigated 13,670 celestial targets. The telescope high above the Earth's atmosphere at 368 miles in this undated photo. (NASA/The New York Times) #
Star-Birth Clouds in M16: Stellar "Eggs" Emerge from Molecular Cloud Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University) Images from Hubble Telescope #
This stunning false-color picture shows off the many sides of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. It is made up of images taken by three of NASA's Great Observatories, using three different wavebands of light. Infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope are colored red; visible data from the Hubble Space Telescope are yellow; and X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory are green and blue. Located 10,000 light-years away in the northern constellation Cassiopeia, Cassiopeia A is the remnant of a once massive star that died in a violent supernova explosion 325 years ago. It consists of a dead star, called a neutron star, and a surrounding shell of material that was blasted off as the star died. This remnant marks the most recent supernova in our Milky Way galaxy, and is one of the most studied objects in the sky. Each Great Observatory highlights different characteristics of this celestial orb. While Spitzer reveals warm dust in the outer shell about a few hundred degrees Kelvin (80 degrees Fahrenheit) in temperature, Hubble sees the delicate filamentary structures of hot gases about 10,000 degrees Kelvin (18,000 degrees Fahrenheit). Chandra probes unimaginably hot gases, up to about 10 million degrees Kelvin (18 million degrees Fahrenheit). These extremely hot gases were created when ejected material from Cassiopeia A smashed into surrounding gas and dust. Chandra can also see Cassiopeia A's neutron star (turquoise dot at center of shell).
This image provided by NASA shows Hurricane Gordon was captured at 2:15:36 EDT, Sunday Sept. 17, 2006 with a digital still camera, equipped with a 20-35mm lens, by one of the crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The center of the storm was located near 34.0 degrees north latitude and 53.0 degrees west longitude, while moving north-northeast. At the time the photo was taken, the sustained winds were 70 nautical miles per hour with gusts to 85 nautical miles per hour. (AP Photo/NASA) #
In this handout from NASA, Astronauts Andrew Feustel (L) and John Grunsfeld, both STS-125 mission specialists, participate in the mission's third session of extravehicular activity (EVA) as work continues to refurbish and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope May 16, 2009 in Space. The space shuttle Atlantis' mission is to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope in order to extend its working life. (Photo NASA via Getty Images) #
This is the official NASA photo of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger mission 51L. All seven members of the crew were killed when the shuttle exploded during launch on Jan. 28, 1986. From front left, are: astronauts Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, and Ronald E. McNair. Rear left are: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik. (AP Photo/Files) #
Picture taken 28 January 1986 by NASA showing the solid fuel rocket booster of the space shuttle Challenger starting to explode over Kennedy Space Center. The US space shuttle exploded seconds after lift-off, killing it crew of seven. Challenger was 72 seconds into its flight, travelling at nearly 2,000 mph at a height of ten miles, when it was suddenly envelope in a red, orange and white fireball as thousands of tons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel exploded. AFP PHOTO NASA #
The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986. All seven crew members died in the explosion, which was blamed on faulty o-rings in the shuttle's booster rockets. The Challenger's crew was honored with burials at Arlington National Cemetery. (AP Photo/Bruce Weaver) #
The family of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who was America's first astronaut, realize the horror after the Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger blew apart after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986. The sister of Christa, Betsy, left, and parents Grace and Ed Corrigan console each other after the explosion. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) #
U.S. President Ronald Reagan, center, is surrounded by members of his senior staff as he watches a TV replay of the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, on February 3, 1986, at the White House in Washington. From left are: Larry Speakes, deputy White House press secretary; Presidential Assistant Dennis Thomas; Special Assistant Jim Kuhn; Reagan; White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan, and Chief of Staff Donald Regan. (AP Photo/Craig Fujii) #
Christa McAuliffe, a teacher chosen by NASA to be the first private citizen to fly in space, is shown riding in a parade in her hometown of Concord, New Hampshire, Feb. 22, 1985, the day after she was picked in 1985 "Challenger," an ABC-TV movie about the space shuttle, disaster that took the lives of McAuliffe and six other crew members, has been given poor reviews by those who knew her. (AP Photo) #
Three of the ten space teacher candidates pose in the command module of the Space Shuttle mock-up at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, July 9, 1985. They are from left to right; Robert Foerster of Evansville, Indiana; S. Christa McAuliffe of Concord, New Hampshire; and Kathleen Beres of Baltimore, Maryland. (AP Photo/R.J. Carson) #
The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia's mission STS-107 take a break from their training regime to pose for the traditional crew portrait. Seated in front are astronauts Rick D. Husband (L), mission commander; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; and William C. McCool, pilot. Standing are (L to R) astronauts David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, and Michael P. Anderson, all mission specialists; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist representing the Israeli Space Agency. The one-year anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia disaster during re-entry will be marked February 1, 2004. (Photo by NASA/Getty Images) #
This image from a NASA handout video shows a close up of a piece of debris falling from the external tank, then striking the left wing of the Space Shuttle Columbia during launch on January 16, 2003. NASA Mission Control lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia during reentry on February 1, 2003 and later learned that the shuttle had broken up. The one-year anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia disaster during re-entry will be marked February 1, 2004. (Photo by NASA/Getty Images) #
Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, STS-107 mission specialist, looks over a procedures checklist in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia January 27, 2003 In Space. (Photo by NASA/Getty Images) #
The STS-107 crewmembers strike a flying pose for their traditional in-flight crew portrait in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module (RDM) aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. From the left (bottom row), wearing red shirts to signify their shifts color, are astronauts Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From the left (top row), wearing blue shirts, are astronauts David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. Ramon represents the Israeli Space Agency. On February 1, 2003, the seven crew members were lost with the Space Shuttle Columbia over North Texas. This picture was on a roll of unprocessed film later recovered by searchers from the debris. #
Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky over Tyler, Texas, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003. Amateur photographer Dr. Scott Lieberman shot a series of photos showing the break-up of the space shuttle from his backyard in Tyler early Saturday. Space shuttle Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas on Saturday, killing all seven astronauts just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida. (AP Photo/Tyler Morning Telegraph, Dr. Scott Lieberman) #
A Texas Department of Safety trooper photographs part of what is believed to be a piece of debris from the space shuttle Columbia along State Highway 155, north of Palestine, Texas, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003. The shuttle tore to pieces Saturday 39 miles above Texas, killing all seven astronauts, in the last 16 minutes of a 16-day mission, as the spaceship re-entered Earth's atmosphere. (AP Photo/San Antonio Express-News, Jerry Lara) #
Mourners visit the main gate of the Johnson Space Center bringing memorial items for the family and crew of space shuttle Columbia in Houston, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003. Authorities used horses and satellite gear Sunday to search for more scorched pieces of space shuttle Columbia across the Texas and Louisiana countryside. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) #
In this NASA photo, NASA crash investigators place debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia on a grid on the floor of a hangar on March 4, 2003 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA is attempting to reassemble debris from the shuttle to learn what caused Columbia to break up during reentry. NASA Mission Control lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia during the reentry phase of mission STS-107 on February 1, 2003 and later learned that the shuttle had broken up over Texas. Debris from the wreckage drifted hundreds of miles from central Texas to Louisiana. All seven astronauts onboard the Shuttle died in the crash. (Photo by NASA/Getty Images) #
The crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery (front row) Payload Specialist Chiaki Mukai and Mission Commander Curt Brown; Payload Specialist John Glenn; (C) and Mission Specialist Pedro Duque depart the Operations & Checkout building and head to the Space Shuttle Discovery to begin their mission into space from the Kennedy Space Center, FL 29 October 1998. Glenn, 77, a Payload specialist on Discovery was the first American to orbit the earth in 1962. Discoverys crew will conduct a variety of science experiments in the pressurized SPACEHAB module and deployment and retrieval of the Spartan free-flyer payload. AFP PHOTO Tony Ranze #
US Senator and astronaut John Glenn (R) and his wife Annie, along with the crew of the recently completed Space Shuttle Discovery mission, parade up Broadway's "Canyon of Heroes" 16 November as the crew were given a ticker tape parade. This is the second time the 77-year-old Glenn has received a ticker tape parade in New York with the first on 01 March, 1962 after he became the first American to ever orbit the Earth. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images #
In this handout provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-134) makes its final landing at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at Kennedy Space Center on June 01, 2011, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Endeavour, completing a 16-day mission to outfit the International Space Station. Endeavour spent 299 days in space and traveled more than 122.8 million miles during its 25 flights. It launched on its first mission on May 7, 1992. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA Via Getty Images) #
In this image provided by NASA the space shuttle Endeavour, fresh from the STS-126 mission and mounted atop its modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, flew over California's Mojave Desert on its way back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday Dec. 10, 2008. NASA's soon-to-be-retired space shuttles are up for grabs. The space agency said Wednesday Dec. 17, 2008 it's looking for ideas on where and how best to display its space shuttles once they stop flying in a few years. Beware: NASA estimates it will cost about $42 million to get each shuttle ready and get it where it needs to go, and the final tab could end up much more. The estimate includes $6 million to ferry the spaceship atop a modified jumbo jet to the closest major airport. (AP Photo/NASA) #
The space shuttle program enters its final stage when Atlantis, the nation’s last operational space shuttle, blasts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., capping a four-decade legacy of American ingenuity. The flight, scheduled to start July 8, also will close another chapter in Southern California aerospace history. Developing, manufacturing and sending skyward the nation’s fleet of space shuttles for NASA provided a livelihood for tens of thousands of workers and their families. With them came a new era in aerospace technology that has left a lasting imprint on Southern California business, education and civic life. The shuttle — half-rocket, half-airplane — has been called the world’s most advanced flying machine. The program’s technology has shaped many industrial and digital advances still unfolding.
From its first launch 30 years ago to its final launch scheduled for next Friday, NASA's Space Shuttle program has seen moments of dizzying inspiration and of crushing disappointment. When next week's launch is complete, the program will have sent up 135 missions, ferrying more than 350 humans and thousands of tons of material and equipment into low Earth orbit. Fourteen astronauts have lost their lives along the way -- the missions have always been risky, the engineering complex, the hazards extreme. As we near the end of the program, I'd like to look back at the past few decades of shuttle development and missions as we await the next steps toward human space flight. [61 photos]
Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, on April 12, 1981. Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen were onboard STS-1, the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle program. (Reuters/NASA/KSC)