The Last Liftoff: A Farewell to the Shuttle Program

Dan Winters for TIME
Dan Winters for TIME
May 17th, 2011. Atlantis is transported from her hanger to the vehicle assembly building 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.

Related Topics: , , ,

Latest Posts

A man carries a child as another lies dead after two explosions on a beach in Gaza, July 16, 2014.

Why Violent News Images Matter

A recent slew of situations resulting in catastrophic violence and death has led to a renewed debate as to what kinds of imagery media outlets should be expected to show, writes Fred Ritchin

Read More
Ebola in Sierra Leone for the Washington Post

PJL: September 2014 (Part 1)

Zapruder film frame #372 of Kennedy assassination showing Mrs. Kennedy climbing towards Secret Service agent who is attempting to board back of limousine after Pres. Kennedy has been shot. Dallas. United States. Nov. 22, 1963.

When Amateur Photographers Make the Front Page

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,858 other followers