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Space Shuttle program

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Starting next month, NASA will begin delivering its four Space Shuttle orbiters to their final destinations. After an extensive decommissioning process, the fleet -- which includes three former working spacecraft and one test orbiter -- is nearly ready for public display. On April 17, the shuttle Discovery will be attached to a modified 747 Jumbo Jet for transport to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Endeavour will go to Los Angeles in mid-September, and in early 2013, Atlantis will take its place on permanent display at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Test orbiter Enterprise will fly to New York City next month. Gathered here are images of NASA's final days spent processing the Space Shuttle fleet. [35 photos]

In Orbiter Processing Facility-2 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the flight deck of space shuttle Atlantis is illuminated one last time during preparations to power down Atlantis during Space Shuttle Program transition and retirement activities, on December 22, 2011. Atlantis is being prepared for public display in 2013 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (NASA/Jim Grossmann)

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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)

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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)

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by Rich Remsberg

One of the best things about vintage films is that they provide a fixed medium for old promises about the future. Probably nowhere is this more entertaining than in the area of space exploration.

Moon landings, once the unapproachable superlative of what was possible in a future world, stepped into antiquity years ago, and now the space shuttle program is retiring. What do we have and what do we not have? What have we accomplished and what remains?

In the 1970s, NASA produced a series of short magazine-style films now in the collection at the National Archives. There's a lot of great material there, including this remarkable episode from 1976 on Enterprise, the non-orbiting first research space shuttle.

I'll leave thoughts on the science and technology to people who know what they're talking about, but I love watching Learning to Build in Space for other aspects: the rare beauty of a 150,000-gallon tank of water where spacesuit-wearing figures float in the simulated weightless environment. It's a perfectly balanced state, equal parts ethereal, graceful, clunky and absurd.

To this footage, which we've edited, we also added some ambient music, courtesy of musician Nicholas Szczepanik. It could be shown in its original form, but instead, here's more of an immersive experience, as it were:

Video

Vintage footage shows astronauts training for zero gravity.

Credit: Video footage: NASA/National Archives, Music: Nicholas Szczepanik/Streamline

We may not have had a fully functioning space colony by the year 2000, as promised in another video from this collection, but I have to admire the optimism expressed toward its realization, a realization that would be made possible because of the clever idea to mine building materials from the moon — it's that much closer.

While we're waiting for — or working to build — our space colonies, jet packs, flying cars and the rest, here's hoping we can do as good a job as possible of living in the present, here on Earth. My thanks to Lisa Hartjens for introducing me to NASA's ASR series.

Found in the Archives, a Picture Show miniseries, features archival films and found images selected by researcher Rich Remsberg.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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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.

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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)

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