Atlantis Crew ‘Riding Inside a Fireball’


At a post-landing news conference, STS-132 commander Ken Ham described the incredible visual effects the crew of Atlantis witnessed as they returned to Earth today. As the shuttle was engulfed in plasma during the hottest part of their re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere, they were in orbital darkness, which highlighted the orange, fiery glow around the shuttle. “We were clearly riding inside of a fireball, and we flew right into the sunrise from inside this fireball, so we could see the blue color of the Earth’s horizon coming through the orange. It was amazing and just visually overwhelming.”

As evidence, ISS astronaut Soichi Noguchi captured Atlantis as that fireball, streaking though atmosphere, just as dawn approached. “Dawn, and Space Shuttle re-entered atmosphere over Pacific Ocean. 32 years of service, 32nd beautiful landing. Forever, Atlantis!” Noguchi wrote on Twitter, posting a link to the image.


Asked about his thoughts after landing, Ham said, “Walking around Atlantis after the flight I realized I probably just did the most fun and amazing thing I’ll do in my life.”

As for Atlantis, and whether she’ll fly one more time, the latest word is that the NASA authorization bill — as it stand now –will include language authorizing an additional shuttle mission.

As for Noguchi, take in all the images you can now from him on his Twitter feed, He, along with Expedition 23 Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov, and astronaut T.J. Creamer are scheduled to leave the ISS on the Soyuz spacecraft on June 1 and land on the southern region steppe of Kazakhstan, completing almost six months on the station.

Here’s an image Noguchi took of Atlantis just after it undocked from the ISS last weekend.

Atlantis, as seen by Soichi Noguchi from the ISS, after undocking. Credit: Soichi Noguchi/ JAXA/ NASA
Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004, and has published over 6,000 articles on space exploration, astronomy, science and technology. She is the author of two books: "Eight Years to the Moon: the History of the Apollo Missions," (2019) which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible; and "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" (2016) tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond. Follow Nancy on Twitter at and and Instagram at and

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