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

North Korea War Anniversary

Pictures of the Week: Jul. 25 – Aug. 1

From an Ebola outbreak in Africa and Eid al-Fitr celebrations around the world, to the destruction of underground tunnels in Gaza and people dancing in the streets of North Korea, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

Read More
Follow Friday, Oliver Lang

#LightBoxFF: Oliver Lang’s Crash Course on Adapting to Instagram

The collapsed minaret of mosque seen from the destroyed living room of a Palestinian family in a building across the street in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2014.

Inside Gaza and Israel: Two Photographers, One War