Space Shuttle Launch and Landing

    Atlantis launches on the STS-132 mission Image above: Space shuttle Atlantis launches July 8, 2011 on the STS-135 mission, the final flight of the Space Shuttle Program. Image credit: NASA
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    Beginning with space shuttle Columbia's 1979 delivery to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the center has been home to each of the five flown shuttle orbiters for the duration of the Space Shuttle Program. Space shuttle Atlantis completed the program on July 21, 2011, wrapping up the STS-135 mission with a predawn touchdown on the same runway where Columbia first arrived more than 30 years earlier.

    Shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against the predawn sky during rollout to the launch pad before STS-130

    Image above: Shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against the dawn sky as it rolls to Launch Pad 39A for STS-130 launch preparations. Image credit: NASA/Amanda Diller
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    Shuttle Discovery touches down, ending the STS-133 mission

    Image above: Shuttle Discovery touches down on Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility, completing the STS-133 mission. Image credit: NASA/Linda Perry
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    NASA's shuttle fleet -- Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour -- flew a total of 135 missions. Each one began at Kennedy's Launch Complex 39. Of those missions, 78 ended with a Kennedy landing; 54 concluded with a touchdown on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California; and one landed at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

    Each mission began with a thundering liftoff as the shuttle's twin solid rocket boosters ignited, pushing the vehicle with its crew and cargo beyond the bounds of gravity and into the hostile environment of space. Missions typically lasted one to two weeks, concluding with an hourlong reentry descent through Earth's atmosphere and a precision landing. Because a returning shuttle orbiter was essentially an unpowered glider, there were no second chances -- every touchdown had to be perfect.

    To meet the rigorous demands of spaceflight, each vehicle element -- the orbiter, external fuel tank and boosters -- and all subsystems underwent meticulous maintenance and preparation before each flight. Multiple vehicles could be in various stages of processing at any given time. Once a shuttle was returned to its bay in the orbiter processing facility after landing, teams checked, refurbished or installed hardware for the flight ahead.

    The shuttle then was towed to the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building, where it was joined to its tank and boosters. Finally, the completed launch vehicle and its mobile launcher platform rolled out to the launch pad atop a sturdy, slow-moving crawler-transporter. A spectacular liftoff was the reward for each processing flow, and upon landing, the sequence began once again.

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