This Day In Space (July 8, 2011): The launch of STS-135, the final Space Shuttle launch

Space Shuttle Atlantis currently resides in an exhibit building at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, its permanent home. Back on this day in 2011, Atlantis would fly for the last time. STS-135 marked the end of the Space Shuttle Program.

The first launch of the Space Shuttle Program occurred on April 12th, 1981, with Space Shuttle Columbia, and had its last flight on July 8th, 2011, with Space Shuttle Atlantis. Spanning across 3 decades, there were 135 flights and 6 orbiters constructed. Their names were as follows: Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Enterprise would never see space as it was used for ground and glide testing, and 2 shuttles would meet untimely ends.

Liftoff | 11:29 AM EDT July 8th, 2011

NASA TV Coverage of the STS-135 Launch | Video Credit: NASA

The weather was predicted to only have around a 30% chance of being good to launch. Estimates placed crowds along the space coast at around 1 million. The countdown proceeded smoothly up until T-31 seconds.

The count was held due to a glitch with systems that detect whether or not an arm on the service tower had retracted fully. Teams located at the Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center quickly resolved the issue and the count resumed.

The Space Shuttle Main Engines ignited, followed swiftly by the Solid Rocket Boosters ignition. Atlantis lifted off for the final time.

“The space shuttle spreads its wings one final time for the start of a sentimental journey into history”

-Rob Navias, NASA Ascent Commentator

Image Credit: NASA

On this final mission, Atlantis would visit the International Space Station. Carried onboard, the Raffaello Multipurpose Logistics Module was filled with more than 9,400 pounds of supplies. That doesn’t even include the ~2,200 pounds stored in Atlantis’ middeck. The Raffaello module rode in the Space Shuttles Cargo Bay during flight and was attached to the station using the robotic arm. This module was also loaded with experiments to be returned to earth, plus their waste. This totaled around 5,700 pounds of return cargo.

A memento was left aboard the station before the crew of STS-135 departed, a U.S. Flag. It wasn’t just any old flag though. It had previously flown on STS-1, the first shuttle launch. They left this flag aboard the station to only be retrieved by the next crew to launch from the U.S. Let’s talk a bit about the crew.

STS-135 Crew:

The crew of STS-135 consisted of the following Astronauts: Christopher Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus, and Rex Walheim. All veteran astronauts. Out of all of these names, one may stand out amongst them. That being Doug Hurley.

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flew aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on the Demonstration Mission 2 for the Commercial Crew Program. Not only was this flight a first for a private company, but it was also the first launch from U.S. soil since STS-135. Doug and Bob retrieved the flag left behind by the STS-135 crew and returned it to Earth.

Touchdown | 5:57 AM EDT July 21, 2011

STS-135 Touchdown at Kennedy Space Center | Image credit: NASA/Chad Baumer

Gliding in from the darkness, with only the sound of the sonic booms to disturb the early morning, Space Shuttle Atlantis softly touched down at NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida. After nearly 2 weeks in space, the crew of STS-135 had returned. Thus ended the Space Shuttle Program. But in some ways, it was only the beginning…

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