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The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures

Jul 22, 2011

When the space shuttle Atlantis lands on Thursday, it will wrap up STS-135, the final shuttle mission in the U.S. program's 30-year history.

Even with the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia, the space shuttle has become an icon among U.S. science and technology achievements. During the past three decades, shuttles carried the first U.S. woman and the first African American into space, deployed famous satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and delivered valuable parts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

"The space shuttle has been with us at the heart and soul of the human spaceflight program for about 30 years, and it's a little sad to see it go away," STS-135 mission commander Christopher Ferguson recently told reporters in a televised interview from the ISS.

"It's going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people that dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years. But we're going to try to keep it upbeat ... We're going to try to make it a celebration of the tremendous crowning achievements that have occurred."

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The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Sitting on a rolling platform, the space shuttle Challenger emerges from the mist at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as it heads toward the launch pad, just visible in the distance, in November 1982. Challenger lifted off on its maiden voyage in
April 1983 for the sixth shuttle mission.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Astronaut Sally Ride floats in front of the control panels for the space shuttle Challenger on June 25, 1983, while serving as a mission specialist for STS-7. Ride became the first U.S. woman in space during this mission.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Astronauts John M. Grunsfeld (right) and Richard M. Linnehan stand next to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was brought into the space shuttle Columbia's payload bay for repairs during STS-109, as seen on March 8, 2002.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
The space shuttle Endeavour—payload bay doors ajar —rushes past Earth while docked to the International Space Station on May 28, 2011.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Suspended above the planet, the space shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against the layers of Earth's atmosphere in a picture taken by an ISS crew member on February 9, 2010. The shot shows the shuttle shortly before it docked with the space station during STS-130.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Seen outside the space shuttle Discovery during STS-51-A, astronaut Dale Gardner enjoys a moment of levity as he completes a spacewalk to recover two broken communications satellites from orbit on November 14, 1984. Astronaut Joseph P. Allen IV is seen reflected in Gardner's helmet visor.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
The space shuttle Columbia sits on a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center on March 5, 1981. Columbia launched on the first shuttle flight, STS-1, on April 12, 1981.  Following the first two launches, NASA calculated that they could safely shave 600 pounds (272 kilograms) from a shuttle's overall launch weight by not painting the large external fuel tank white and instead leaving its orange insulating foam exposed.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
A softly glowing plume is all that remains visible of the space shuttle Endeavour after a nighttime launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on March 11, 2008.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Originally slated to bear the name Constitution, the first space shuttle to be built was dubbed Enterprise following a write-in campaign from Star Trek fans. Above, cast members from the science- fiction show attend the shuttle's rollout ceremony in Palmdale, California, on September 17, 1976. From left to right: Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Vulcan science officer Spock; George Takei, who was helmsman Hikaru Sulu; DeForest Kelly, who was chief medical officer Leonard "Bones" McCoy; and James Doohan, who was chief engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Spectators gather in the late-morning heat to watch the space shuttle Atlantis lift off for STS-135, the final shuttle mission, on July 8, 2011.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
A cloud of debris spreads in the sky over coastal Florida as the space shuttle Challenger breaks apart on January 28, 1986. The orbiter disintegrated 74 seconds after launch during STS- 61-C, killing all seven crew members.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Earth seems ready for loading into the space shuttle Endeavour's open payload bay in a picture taken in December 1998 using an onboard IMAX camera. The large-format camera was sent into space during STS-88 in part to film the installation of the Unity Node, the first U.S. module for the International Space Station.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Technicians work on a test firing of a space shuttle main engine at the National Space Technology Laboratories in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, before the first flight of Columbia in 1981.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
The crew of STS-102 works on the flight deck of the space shuttle Discovery to dock the shuttle with the International Space Station on March 10, 2001.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
A technician inspects one of the nylon parachutes used to slow the descent of a space shuttle's solid rocket boosters before STS-1 in 1981. The 80-ton rockets detached shortly after launch and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, where they were recovered for reuse.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Riding piggyback on a Boeing 747, the test shuttle Enterprise glides over the New York City skyline in June 1983. Unable to fly like airplanes under their own power, shuttle orbiters had to be transported long distances atop of other aircraft.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
A tornado forms a dark column near the launch pad, where the space shuttle Columbia waits to launch on STS-93, as seen on July 20, 1999. The shuttle lifted off July 23, carrying NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory into orbit.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Staff at the Mission Control Center of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, monitor the landing of the space shuttle Columbia on April 14, 1981, after the first ever shuttle mission to reach orbit.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Curling like bizarre sigils in the sky, plume remnants from the June 8, 2007, launch of the space shuttle Atlantis glow with the light of the setting sun. The so-called night-shining clouds created by the launch are seen over the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Seen from the space shuttle's payload bay, astronaut Mark Lee goes for an untethered spacewalk outside Discovery in September 1994

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
A huge crowd—many driving recreational vehicles— gathers to watch the space shuttle Columbia land on July 4, 1982, at Edwards Air Force Base in California at the end of STS-4.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
A charred astronaut helmet lying in the grass near Norwood, Texas, was among the debris found after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry on February 1, 2003. The orbiter had completed STS-107 and was returning for landing, but damaged heat shielding caused the craft to disintegrate, killing all seven crew members.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
In preparation for STS-135, the space shuttle Atlantis is lifted high inside the Vehicle Assembly Building on May 18, 2011, so it can be attached to the "stack"—the combination of the large external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
The gentle green glow of the aurora australis—or southern lights—curls over Earth in a picture taken by an astronaut aboard the space shuttle Discovery on August 6, 2005.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Like a delicate water ballet, astronauts practice for a shuttle mission on December 10, 1997, in the Sonny Carter Training Facility—a giant swimming pool filled with life-size replicas of space hardware—at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures
Cocoa Beach surfers watch from the water as the space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from nearby Kennedy Space Center in Florida on September 8, 2000.