July 21, 2011: The last space shuttle landing

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(WHTM) — It was the final flight from the final frontier for the American Space Shuttle program. Ten years ago, at 5:57 a.m. on July 21st, 2011, the Atlantis shuttle touched down at Kennedy Spaceport in Florida. It’s the 33rd mission for the shuttle, and the 135th, and last, for the shuttle fleet.

STS-135 (Space Transportation System) was launched from Kennedy on July 8, 2011. On board were four astronauts: commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. Two days after launch, they docked at the International Space Station.

Atlantis’ main mission is restocking. Over the course of eight days, 11,600 pounds of supplies are transferred from the shuttle to the ISS. Astronauts also loaded 5,700 pounds of unneeded equipment and discard it into the shuttle for return to earth.

When Atlantis undocked from the station it performs a unique fly-around, making a half-loop around the ISS. Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim took photos of the station at angles previous fly-arounds had never captured. These were studied by experts on the ground to get a better idea of the condition of the ISS exterior.

One of their very last tasks before returning to Earth was deploying PicoSat, an eight-pound technology demonstration satellite. The 180th, and last, payload to be placed in orbit from a space shuttle helped usher in the multi-satellite payload, where a number of small satellites get launched in one rocket.

In January 2021, for reference, SpaceX set a record by launching 143 satellites at once.

American astronauts will not lift off from an American launchpad again for nine years. In the interim, they rode to the ISS as passengers in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

The long dry spell ended May 30th, 2020, when astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken lifted off from Kennedy Space Center to the ISS, in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

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