The Last Liftoff: A Farewell to the Shuttle Program

2 minute read

The odds were not good that the shuttle Atlantis would be able to take off Friday morning—just 30%, according to NASA’s meteorologists and mission planners, who don’t look kindly on the idea of launching a spacecraft into rain clouds. But the clouds covering Cape Canaveral today threatened no rain, and the ship blasted off precisely on schedule. It was an incongruously routine launch—a nominal one, as NASA calls it—after a 30-year program that has held so much triumph and surpassed so much tragedy.

After this mission is over, on July 20, that program will be done too. The four astronauts flying Atlantis are carrying with them a lot of hardware and provisions for the International Space Station. But they’re carrying metaphorical baggage as well. There’s no telling when an American ship will carry astronauts aloft again—perhaps 2016, according to one NASA estimate that even NASA doesn’t seem to believe. But for today, most folks are trying not to think too much about that. Nothing diminishes the visual and technological spectacle that the Atlantis liftoff was. The images it leaves behind are one more reason to hope that the next launch—whenever it comes—won’t be too terribly far away.

—Jeffrey Kluger

Dan Winters is an award-winning photographer based in Austin, Los Angeles, and Savannah. Winters photographed author Jonathan Franzen for the cover of TIME in August 2010.

May 17th, 2011. Atlantis hangs in the vehicle assembly building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. She is being mated to her liquid fuel tank (seen at bottom) for the last time.Dan Winters for TIME
May 17th, 2011. Atlantis is transported from her hanger to the vehicle assembly building for the last time.Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. Atlantis' main engines are running at 100% as the solid rocket boosters ignite and she starts to leave the pad.Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. One of Atlantis' two solid rocket boosters just after ignition. The SRB's burn for two minutes and are then jettisoned and recovered. The SRB's provide the shuttle with 86% of its lift-off thrust. Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. Atlantis as she begins to leave the pad.Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. All three of Atlantis' main engines and her two SRB's running at 100% as she clears the tower. Her engines collectively produce 7.8 million pounds of thrust.Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. A cloud of fire and smoke overtakes one of the cameras near the pad. Seven of the nine cameras used to make these photographs were placed near the launch pad on the day before the launch. The compositions were pre-set and the focus was locked, and the cameras were fitted with sound triggers. When the main engine start sequence began, the intense sound activated the cameras. They began firing at a rate of five frames per second. Two other cameras were set at the press site three miles from the pad and operated manually. Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. Atlantis as she clears the tower. She is already traveling over one hundred miles per hour. Her orbiting speed is 17,500 miles per hour.Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. As Atlantis exits the frame, the exhaust trail from her two solid rocket boosters is clearly visible. The solid rocket boosters have no moving parts and cannot be shut down after they are ignited. Atlantis' main engine cluster in the center of the orbiter uses a combination of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants. The exhaust from the liquid fuel engines is water.Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. View as Atlantis climbs toward the heavens. She is on her back after having completed her roll program.Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. A NASA helicopter flies past the column of smoke left in the wake of the launch. Dan Winters for TIME
July 8th, 2011. As Atlantis gains altitude, she begins her roll program, a maneuver intended to align the shuttle on a proper heading to her intended orbit.Dan Winters for TIME

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