The Last Liftoff: A Farewell to the Shuttle Program

Dan Winters for TIME
Dan Winters for TIME
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.

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.

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