Space Shuttle Atlantis – The Final Goodbye

by Chris Gebhardt

The culmination of a 40 plus year enterprise comes today – an endeavor that sought to push the boundaries of human ingenuity and cooperation, to expand human aptitude and perseverance, to solidify humankind’s likenesses and dreams. Through concept, design, manufacturing, flight, and now retirement, the Space Shuttle Program shaped the hearts, minds, and desires of modern generations. And at the core of it all was Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis, OV-104.

Keeping Atlantis at home:

From the late 1970s to today, the Kennedy Space Center has thrived and lived for the processing and care of the Space Shuttle orbiter fleet. From Enterprise and Columbia, to Challenger and Discovery, to Atlantis and Endeavour, the workforce and the orbiters themselves lived and breathed in Florida.

After 30 years and 3.5 months of flight operations, it was, in many ways, mandatory that one of the most iconic vehicles in all history remained at home, at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.

The vehicle chosen for that honor was the Atlantis.

Undertaking the second-simplest retirement move of the Shuttle fleet, Atlantis backed out of the Vehicle Assembly Building shortly before dawn on November 2 to being her 9.8 mile, 11 hour journey to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Riding atop her Orbiter Transportation System (OTS), a 76-wheeled vehicle, Atlantis’s route took her past her Orbiter Processing Facilities, where she underwent careful and meticulous processing for every single one of her 33 voyages.

After passing her OPFs, Atlantis’s driver turned the OTS south on the Kennedy Parkway. Atlantis was then be driven down the Kennedy Parkway to the interchange with the NASA Parkway.

Here, instead of turning west and lumbering a few hundred feet to the visitor’s center, Atlantis turned east and navigated (the wrong way, in terms of traffic flow) up the entrance ramp to NASA Parkway East road.

This placed Atlantis in the headquarters area of the Kennedy Space Center and took her past the Operations and Checkout Building (where all of her astronauts lived in the days before they climbed into her for their missions) and the formerly-named Space Station Processing Facility – where all of the payload elements for the ISS were processed for launched.

A short stop and ceremony for NASA employees followed once Atlantis reaches this point in the journey.

Afterward, she was driven around the headquarters area, off to the south, before turning west and driving over to the still-under-construction Exploration Park, located south of the visitor’s center. Here, members of the public who purchased tickets to see Atlantis were bused to her for an approximately 3hour-long walk-around and photography opportunity.

With that complete, Atlantis’s drivers set their sights on completing the 9.8 mile journey by turning Atlantis north onto Space Commerce Way and driving her north toward the NASA Parkway.

Once there, Atlantis turned east onto the parkway and driven the final few hundred feet to her permanent display location at the visitor’s center.

After delivery, Atlantis’s landing gear will be lowered, and the OTS will ease her down onto her wheels.

By November 11, Atlantis will be wrapped in a protective covering and then attached to steel support beams and leveling/lifting jacks, which will be used to raise Atlantis off the ground so her landing gear can be stowed for the final time.

Afterward, the beams and jacks will lift Atlantis about 36 feet into the air, her wings level with the ground.

Here, the complicated process of tilting Atlantis just over 43-degrees onto her side will begin.

The complicated process will see Atlantis attached to large support platforms that will bear her entire, off-balance, titled weight.

With tilting operations complete, construction of the building will be finished – with Atlantis cocooned for protection from building materials until late Spring 2013.

Once building construction is complete, Atlantis will be unwrapped and her payload bay doors opened through a completed process using payload bay door strong-backs and ceiling-mounted cables to counteract the force of gravity on the doors – which were designed for operation in the microgravity environment of Earth orbit, not the harsh gravity environment of Earth sea level.

When complete, Atlantis will be uniquely displayed as only astronauts have seen her – with her payload bay doors open, her robot arm extended, and her communications antenna deployed.

Backdropping Atlantis for the final display will be a giant LED television screen depicting the Earth, as seen from orbit, rotating slowly and peacefully below the Atlantis.

She will be displayed as she was meant to be – in orbit of Earth.

Atlantis – A lifetime of international success:

For over 25 years, Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis served as a backbone to the world’s space community. Conducting more internationally themed missions than any other launch and entry vehicle in human history, Atlantis was a pillar of international cooperation both in space and on the ground.

Delivered to the Kennedy Space Center on 13 April 1985, Atlantis was the fourth and final of the originally-planned Space Shuttle orbiters, though she ultimately became the fourth of five Shuttles when Endeavour joined the fleet in 1992.

The only Shuttle orbiter named for a contemporary, 20th century, still-operational ship of exploration, Atlantis took her name from the Earth-bound ship of exploration for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute of Massachusetts.

That sea-fairing Atlantis, since transferred from Woods Hole to Argentina’s CONICET and renamed twice, holds the record of being the most-traveled sea fairing vessel in the world – with more scientific research-based miles to her name than any other ship in history.

Like her namesake, Shuttle Atlantis holds the distinction of being the most international space launch and entry vehicle in history, with 25 of her 33 missions dedicated in some way to the pursuit for multi-national cooperation.

And it all began on 3 October 1985.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 1 of Atlantis’ History:

Launching on her maiden voyage on the STS-51J mission, Atlantis became the first and only Space Shuttle orbiter to have her maiden voyage classified by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the first Space Shuttle orbiter to actually launch on the first attempt on a maiden voyage.

Following this first flight, Atlantis was quickly processed for her second mission, spending only 26 days in the OPF, a record-fast processing flow never again matched and never again attempted in the history of the Space Shuttle Program.

In fact, the total time between her first and second launches was just 54 days – a record low for the Space Shuttle Program.

Tragically, before Atlantis could take to the skies for her third mission, her sister Challenger was lost with all seven crewmembers.

Following the disaster, Atlantis was used in 1986 for launch pad countdown procedure certifications/tests and emergency egress/rescue training.

Returning to active service nearly three years after Challenger and after the incorporation of numerous safety upgrades and enhancements, Atlantis conducted her first post-Challenger flight on 2 December 1988.

During launch of this STS-27 classified DOD mission, ablative insulation on the right hand Solid Rocket Booster liberated and impacted the right hand side of the Atlantis, causing significant Thermal Protection System (TPS) damage.

From the images the crew were allowed to transmit because of the classified nature of the mission, it was determined that the damage was no more severe than on previous missions.

Upon landing, however, over 700 TPS tiles were found to be damage, and one tile was completely missing.

Luckily, perhaps the only thing that prevented a burn through at the area of the missing TPS tile and the loss of Atlantis and her flight crew was the fact that the missing tile was located over a dense aluminum mounting – which provided some degree of protection during atmospheric reentry.

Thus, Atlantis became the most-damaged launch/entry vehicle to successfully return to Earth – a distinction she still holds.

After being repaired at the Kennedy Space Center, Atlantis went on to launch the Magellan interplanetary probe to Venus and the Galileo interplanetary probe to Jupiter in 1989.

She followed this success in 1990 with the STS-36 and STS-38 missions, both dedicated to the Department of Defense.

In 1991, she took up her role in the Great Observatories program with the launch of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory on STS-37, followed by the STS-43 and STS-44 (her eighth and last solely domestic flight) missions later that year.

STS-45 and STS-46 followed in 1992 before Atlantis underwent her first Orbiter Modification Down Period to modify her for her upcoming role in the Shuttle-MIR Program.

Returning to service in November 1994, Atlantis flew her final solo flight – a flight that did not dock to a space station or rendezvous with an orbiting telescope – for the Space Shuttle Program with the ATLAS-3 mission.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2 of Atlantis’ History:

Seven months later, Atlantis launched on the STS-71 mission to the Russian space station MIR.

With this flight, Atlantis conducted the 100th, crewed U.S. spaceflight, became the first Space Shuttle orbiter to dock with a space station, became the first of only two Space Shuttle orbiters to be photographed from close proximity in space while docked to a space station, and became the first and only Space Shuttle orbiter to be photographed in that scenario while undocking from a space station.

STS-71 marked the first of seven straight voyages to MIR for Atlantis: STS-71, STS-74, STS-76 (first U.S. EVA around two mated spacecraft), STS-79, STS-81, STS-84, and STS-86 (the first joint U.S.-Russian spacewalk of a Space Shuttle mission).

After STS-86, Atlantis was removed from service and sent back to California for another Orbiter Modification Down Period of upgrades, enhancements, and modifications to prepare her for her support of construction of the International Space Station.

After two and a half years of down time, Atlantis returned to service with the STS-101 mission to the International Space Station. During this mission, Atlantis became the first Space Shuttle orbiter to fly with the new glass cockpit.

During STS-101’s reentry, however, Atlantis narrowly escaped another dangerous issue with her Thermal Protection System when a damaged tile seam on her left wing allowed super-heated gas to enter her wing. Thankfully, the gas did not penetrate too deeply, and Atlantis made it safely to the runway at the Kennedy Space Center.

Atlantis spent the next two years delivering supplies, labs, and truss segments to the International Space Station on the STS-106, STS-98 (delivery of the U.S. Destiny lab and the 100th U.S. EVA), STS-104 (delivery of the Quest Airlock), STS-110 (delivery of the backbone of the Station’s truss structure), and STS-112 missions.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 3 of Atlantis’ History:

As with 1985, STS-112 was sadly the final voyage of Atlantis before the loss of another of her sisters: Columbia and her crew on 1 February 2003.

With both Challenger and Columbia, Atlantis performed the second-to-last successful mission before both losses.

In the intervening two and a half years, Atlantis was upgraded with all Columbia safety enhancements and handed the all-important role as vehicle chosen to fly the Return To Flight mission – an honor she eventual lost to Discovery because of a landing gear issue.

In all, Atlantis was grounded for nearly four years because of Columbia, finally returning to space on STS-115 in September 2006 on a mission that officially resumed construction of the International Space Station following Columbia.

STS-117 followed in June 2007 and marked Atlantis’s longest voyage at 13days, 20hours, 12minutes, and 44seconds and the 250th crewed orbital launch in human spaceflight.

Atlantis followed this with STS-122 in February 2008 – a mission that saw her deliver the European Space Agency’s lab Columbus to the Station. STS-122 marked the first of three penultimate flights for Atlantis, as only her STS-125 mission was manifested to follow this mission at the time it was flown.

However, encountering delays because of the telescope itself, Atlantis did not launch on what was arguably her most important mission, STS-125 to the Hubble Space Telescope, until 11 May 2009.

For her one-and-only mission to Hubble, Atlantis and her crew of seven delivered two new instruments to the iconic telescope, replaced six gyroscopes and two battery unit modules on Hubble, and replaced the Fine Guidance Sensor on the telescope.

After 37hours of spacewalks, Hubble was restored to full operating condition, its orbit raised, and then released by Atlantis back into a solitary orbit.

With this flight of Atlantis, all four operational Shuttle orbiters during Hubble tenure conducted servicing missions to the telescope.

Upon completion of STS-125 to Hubble, Atlantis had two more missions to her name: STS-129 and STS-132.

STS-129 saw Atlantis deliver tens of thousands of pounds of external spares to the Station. It was, again, at the time of flight, her penultimate mission.

Six months later, after a record low number of issues during a processing flow for any Space Shuttle orbiter, Atlantis was on the pad for her then-final flight: STS-132 to deliver the Russian Mini-Research Module 1 to the ISS.

Liftoff of the first-last flight of Atlantis occurred on time on 14 May 2010. Upon landing 12 days later, it was unclear whether she would ever fly again.

In January 2011, STS-132 officially became the third and actual penultimate flight of Atlantis with NASA’s announcement of the official manifestation of STS-135 and the handing of that emotionally-charged final flight of the program to Atlantis.

On 8 July 2011, in front of an in-person, emotional crowd of over one million, Atlantis flexed her muscles, stretched her wings one final time, and ascended to the heavens.

It was STS-135 – the 166th crewed U.S. spaceflight, 135th and final Space Shuttle mission, 110th post-Challenger launch, 100th day-time launch of the Space Shuttle, 37th flight of the Space Shuttle dedicated to the International Space Station, 33rd and final flight of orbiter Atlantis, and the 22nd post-Columbia mission.

It was the end of an era.

Final reflections on a legend:

At the time of her delivery to the Kennedy Space Center in April 1985, few could have predicted that Shuttle orbiter Atlantis would be the vehicle to fly the Program’s historic final flight.

Over the course of her career, Atlantis became the first Space Shuttle orbiter to dock to an orbiting space station, going on to perform the most dockings to a space station (19 total) of any launch and entry space vehicle in history.

She obtained the distinction of being the vehicle called upon to launch more scientific laboratory modules for the ISS than any other station construction vehicle, launching Destiny for the United States (STS-96), Columbus for the European Space Agency (STS-122), and the Mini-Research Module 1 for Russia (STS-132).

And she was the final Space Shuttle orbiter to visit the two most iconic symbols of success thus far in humankind’s exploration of space: the Hubble Space Telescope (STS-125) and the International Space Station (STS-135)

In all, 25 of Atlantis’s 33 flights were dedicated to international pursuits, making her the most international orbiter in the Space Shuttle Program and the most international launch and entry space vehicle of all time.

For the official record, Atlantis (OV-104) flew 33 missions; spent 305days 7hours 47minutes in space; completed 4,848 orbits of Earth; travelled 125.9 million miles;  deployed 12 satellites; launched two interplanetary probes; conducted 19 space station dockings (a world-wide record she will keep for decades to come); carried 207 crewmembers to space; and was the only Space Shuttle orbiter to never suffer a post-engine start launch pad abort.

Put simply: her service is one that could not have been done without and one that has paved the way for unprecedented international cooperation both now and for the future of space exploration.

To many, she held the most meaningful name of all the Space Shuttles: ATLANTIS – a long-standing name of perseverance and longing.

Like the mythical city before her, Atlantis’s name symbolized our collective desire to push forward despite the nay-sayers and the unbelievers and reach for and believe in something that wasn’t always tangible but we knew in our hearts was there.

In this way, it is fitting that Atlantis was the final Shuttle orbiter to fly – taking with her our hopes, beliefs, and desires on one final Shuttle mission to expand our scientific discoveries and endeavours on the International Space Station and beyond.

To her workforce and to those who had the privilege to work close by her, she was a member of the family – a sister we constantly asked too much of, but a sister who gave more than we ever asked her to.

The final vehicle of the originally-planned orbiter fleet, Atlantis is now the final ship we say good-bye to, her flying days cut short for political purposes.

But despite the road that led us here, we will never forget the missions, the discoveries, and the ship named Atlantis.

To her and all who worked and flew aboard her, from all of us at, we say THANK YOU for an awe-inspiring journey.

To the good ship Atlantis – farewell and thank you for the memories.

The team.

(Article images via L2 Historical’s huge collection of Hi Res (larger than desktop size, average 3mb each, many scanned and restored from hard copies) images, videos, MER reports, etc. For nearly every mission – over 500 gigabytes an growing just for the historical database. Some images also via and Larry Sullivan and Nate Moeller, MaxQ Entertainment/

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