In an historic photo shoot earlier this month, NASA commemorated the space shuttle’s retirement, personifying the thirty-year program with the first and last astronaut crews to fly the vehicle.
The shuttle program has certainly come a long way from STS-1 to STS-135.
John Young and Robert Crippen launched on STS-1 in the shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981, twenty years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. It was a shakedown cruise, with the two astronauts spending only two days in orbit. They checked out the spacecraft’s systems, the vehicle’s overall flight worthiness, and made the first runway landing from orbit. The only payload the crew carried was a Development Flight Instrumentation (DFI) package. It contained sensors to measure and record Columbia’s performance in orbit and the stresses it felt during launch, ascent, orbital flight, descent and landing.
Thirty years and two months later, the crew of STS-135 had a much busier mission on their hands. Launched on July 8, 2011 in the Atlantis orbiter, the crew’s primary mission objective was to transfer thousands of pounds of supplies into the International Space Station and take thousands more pounds of unneeded cargo back down to Earth.
Atlantis stayed docked to the ISS for eight of its twelve days in orbit. The crew, along with the Expedition 28 crew that spent close to four months aboard the station, played a real life and oversized version of Tetris to get all the supplies squared away in the ISS’ multi-purpose module.
With the cargo transfer complete, Atlantis undocked from the station on July 19. The crew spent the last two days of the final mission in orbit, deploying experiments and readying the spacecraft for landing. Atlantis touched down on the runway at the Kennedy Spaceflight Centre on July 21.
NASA’s complete image gallery, which includes images of the STS-135 post flight wrap up as well as pictures with the STS-1 crew, highlights the personal strain that runs through manned spaceflight. And it doesn’t stop there. During STS-135’s mission, commander Chris Ferguson presented the ISS’s crew the U.S. flag John Young and Robert Crippen carried into space on STS-1. The flag will remain on display on the station until the next crew that launches from the U.S. retrieves it. After returning to Earth, the flag will be launched again with the first crew to embark on a journey beyond Earth orbit.