On the cusp of the final space shuttle flight ever, we look back at the storied history of one of NASA's most advanced space vehicles.
Atlantis' maiden voyage
In April 1985, the space shuttle Atlantis was delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle's maiden voyage, which began with this launch on October 3, 1985, was the start of a storied career for one of NASA's most advanced space vehicles.
Atlantis is scheduled to launch today on its 33rd flight, the 135th mission overall for the space shuttle program, and the final trip into space for the fleet of orbiters.
Atlantis' first flight crew, mission STS-51J, included mission specialist Robert L. Stewart (left, seated), commander Karol J. Bobko and pilot Ronald J. Grabe. In the back row are mission specialists David C. Hilmers (left) and Air Force Major Willliam A. Pailles.
Mission STS-34, seen here lifting off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 18, 1989, delivered the Galileo spacecraft which was deployed on a six-year voyage to Jupiter.
Atlantis' STS-34 crew pose for a space portrait. From left to right are commander Donald E. Williams, mission specialists Ellen S. Baker and Shannon W. Lucid, and pilot Michael J. McCulley, and in front, mission specialist Franklin R. Chang-Diaz.
Atlantis' STS-76 mission, seen here making a night launch on March 22, 1996, marked first flight of the Spacehab pressurized module, which was carried inside the shuttle cargo bay and provided 28 cubic meters of expanded habitable space for experiments and logistics transport to the International Space Station.
Sitting atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida on November 11, 1997, Atlantis is being prepared for transport to Palmdale, Calif., for its maintenance "down period" at Palmdale's Orbiter Assembly Facility, where it will remain until August 1998.
While at the Orbiter Assembly Facility, space shuttles undergo routine inspections, modifications, and repairs in preparation for future missions.
On September 28, 1998, Atlantis returns to the Orbiter Processing Facility-2 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center after spending 10 months at the Palmdale facility, where upgrades included adding an external airlock for docking with the space station and installing the first Multifunction Electronic Display Subsystem, also known as a "glass cockpit."
The Multifunction Electronic Display Subsystem upgrade was the first of its kind for a NASA orbiter, intended to improve crew/orbiter interaction with modern computer systems and digital displays of flight indicators such as altitude and mach speed--hence the term "glass cockpit."
This wide angle view of the new cockpit was taken on April 9, 1999.
In this photograph taken on July 4, 1995, by the Mir-19 crew, Atlantis is shown docked to Russia's Mir Space Station.
Cosmonauts Anatoliy Y. Solovyev and Nikolai M. Budarin, who arrived via Atlantis' STS-71 mission, temporarily undocked the Soyuz spacecraft from the cluster of Mir elements to perform a brief fly-around of Mir.
The crew of Atlantis' STS-115 mission--commander Brent Jett, pilot Chris Ferguson, mission specialists Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Joe Tanner, and Dan Burbank, and the Canadian Space Agency's Steve MacLean--trained longer than any other NASA crew to date for their work constructing portions of the ISS.
The drag chute deployed for Atlantis' landing on February 20, 2008, following the 13-day STS-122 mission during which the crew installed the Columbus Research Module at the International Space Station, adding almost 1,000 cubic feet of habitable volume,and room for 10 additional scientific experiment racks.
On May 10, 2009, the rotating service structure at Launch Pad 39A has been retracted in preparation for Atlantis' liftoff on mission STS-125 to service NASA's Hubble Space Telescope for the fifth and final time. The telescope was upgraded with state-of-the-art instruments intended to extend its lifespan through at least 2014.
During a spacewalk on May 16, 2009, as part of mission STS-125, mission specialist Andrew Feustel floats near the Hubble Space Telescope, attached to the end of the remote manipulator system arm. Mission specialist John Grunsfeld, seen a few feet away, assists in the work to service the telescope docked inside Atlantis' cargo bay.
On June 2, 2009, Atlantis returns to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, perched atop a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft after its May 24 landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, following mission STS-125.
Atlantis lifts off on May 14, 2010, from Launch Pad 39A for mission STS-132. This trip, the 132nd shuttle flight, and the 32nd for Atlantis, saw the crew conduct three spacewalks focusing on spare parts for the ISS including batteries, a communications antenna, and components for the Dextre robotic arm.
When Atlantis returns from its current mission on or about July 20, emergency vehicles will meet it at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, marking the end of an era for NASA and American space exploration.
The shuttle program captured a sense of adventure and exploration that spoke to millions of people with aspirations for greater knowledge and a deeper scientific understanding of not only our world, but what might be in other worlds.