STS-135 Atlantis – the final episode
The Space Shuttle Atlantis announced its arrival at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the early morning hours of 21 July 2011 with a double sonic boom. Just over three minutes later, the spaceship touched down on the runway and at 05:57:54 local time "wheels stop" was called for the last time. Atlantis and its crew had safely returned to Earth. NASA's space shuttles have travelled into orbit 135 times; this era ended today. The space shuttles have shaped US space policy for the last 30 years and have stood as an icon of human spaceflight for a whole generation.
Slideshow: Touchdown of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on 21 July 2011 – the last landing by a space shuttle. All images: DLR, CC-BY 3.0. Flash not available? Then please click here.
KSC received the elegant spaceship with a special ceremony. Atlantis was parked in the open air for almost three hours, serving as the backdrop for a farewell party at the space centre. Several thousand NASA employees, guests and media representatives took the opportunity to have their picture taken in front of the last operational space shuttle. For many, this bittersweet farewell is not only a sentimental occasion, but also marks a new chapter in their lives. The ending of the shuttle programme will force many employees to look for another job, because no manned space missions will be launched from Florida for many years. NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden, and the astronaut crew tried to spread optimism: “Children who dream of being astronauts today may not fly on the space shuttle … but, one day, they may walk on Mars," said the NASA chief, But, there is a long road ahead to reach that day.
The space shuttles are now being prepared for permanent display in museums. Atlantis will stay at the KSC visitor complex as a special attraction, so visiting the space centre will continue to be worthwhile for the next 30 years. Hopefully, by then, there will be more to see than just space history.
More information in the shuttle section of the NASA Web Portal.