UPDATE – 8 July 2011.  NASA decided to give Atlantis one last go today on STS-135, making my photos NOT the last photos of Atlantis.  Thanks for raining on my parade, NASA!  I’m just glad they got one more launch in – Godspeed to the crew and the memory of the shuttle program.

Last Friday I had the honor of sending off the Atlantis on its final mission, while flying a patrol around Cape Canaveral.  As a part of Operation Noble Eagle, we flew our F-15Es down from North Carolina to enforce the FAA’s Temporary Flight Restriction put in place before and during the launch.  For a guy who grew up following all the shuttle missions as a kid and wanting to be an astronaut, this was a surreal experience.  Flying over the launchpad prior to the launch, listening to the countdown on the radio, and watching it blast off into space will be one of the most memorable events of my lifetime.  Good thing I like to take pictures.  The sampling below represents a small number of the dozens of good space shuttle launch photos that came out.

Providing air cover during the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, STS-132, 14 May 2010. (2010 John Peltier)

Providing air cover during the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, STS-132, 14 May 2010. (2010 John Peltier)

After 31 flights and 115.8 million miles, Atlantis is going to wrap things up.  I recently spent some time reading about the various things Atlantis participated in during its time serving NASA, and found some interesting facts.

-Atlantis was the fourth shuttle built in 1985 and was named after a two-masted research vessel operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930 to 1966.  It was scheduled to retire in 2008 but that was extended until 2010.  It was supposed to be a parts donor for the Endeavor and Discovery until the end of the shuttle program at the end of 2010, but was kept around to take some of the pressure off of the other two shuttles.

-The Endeavor is Atlantis‘ twin sister.  A complete and identical set of spare parts was made when the Atlantis was constructed.  These parts were to be used in the event a shuttle became damaged and needed repairs.  By “spare parts”, I mean a completely assembled aft fuselage, mid fuselage, forward fuselage, wings, and tail.  With the Challenger tragedy in 1986, it was decided that a new shuttle should be built, and the Endeavor was created with these spare parts.  Endeavor is now scheduled to fly the last space shuttle launch.

Space shuttle Atlantis, STS-132, sits on pad 39A prior to launch on its final mission into space on 14 May 2010. (2010 John Peltier)

Space shuttle Atlantis, STS-132, sits on pad 39A prior to launch on its final mission into space on 14 May 2010. (2010 John Peltier)

-In May of 1989, Atlantis was the first space shuttle to launch an interplanetary probe with the Magellan.  This probe made its way to Venus and mapped 98% of the planet’s surface, leading to most of what we know about the planet now.

-Its next mission in August of 1989 launched the Galileo probe.  Galileo arrived over Jupiter in 1995 after taking the first close-up photos of an asteroid and discovering an asteroid moon.  Galileo also caught the only pictures of a comet colliding with a planet when the Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter in 1994.

-In 1991, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory was delivered into orbit by Atlantis. This was the largest scientific payload to be delivered by a shuttle at 17 tons.  The CGRO was in orbit for nine years before being decommissioned.

-In May of 2009, Atlantis made the final servicing trip to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Five spacewalks were completed in order to make repairs and install updgrades to the old telescope.

Providing air cover during the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, STS-132, 14 May 2010. (2010 John Peltier)

Providing air cover during the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, STS-132, 14 May 2010. (2010 John Peltier)

All photos by John Peltier/U.S. Air Force

Official U.S. Air Force Press Release

Sources:
NASA.  Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis (OV-104).  http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/resources/orbiters/atlantis.html
NASA. Space Shuttle Overview: Atlantis (OV-104).  http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/shuttleoperations/orbiters/atlantis-info.html
Ray, J.  (2010, May 11).  Respecting Atlantis as the shuttle faces retirement.  Spaceflight Now.http://www.spaceflightnow.com/shuttle/sts132/100511atlantis/
Rowan, K.  (2010, May 12).  7 cool things you didn’t know about space shuttle Atlantis.  Space.com.http://www.space.com/news/7cool-things-space-shuttle-atlantis-100512.html

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