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Goddard Watches Atlantis's Return
Atlantis touched down just before 6 a.m. EDT on July 21, 2011, signaling the end of the space shuttle era, a program with 135 launches over 30 years and conceptual roots dating back to the Nixon administration.

This Flickr gallery showcases images that illustrate Goddard's perspective on the final space shuttle mission.

The five orbiters, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor, had no shortage of achievements; Goddard’s workforce contributed to many of them. Among the shuttles’ greatest success stories, for example, is the deployment and later servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope, managed and operated at Goddard.

Goddard employees worked around-the-clock during every shuttle mission to guarantee constant, uninterrupted lines of communication for astronauts with Mission Control. The careful dance of satellite relays necessary to keep channels open requires global coordination, but it all comes together in Goddard’s Network Integration Center.

Goddard has fulfilled this communication role in literally all of NASA’s manned space flights: We all know the words, “One small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind,” but no one on Earth would have heard Neil Armstrong say them on July 21, 1969, if not for Goddard.

Controllers at Goddard's Network Integration Center share their thoughts as the 30-year-old Shuttle Program comes to an end with the final flight of orbiter Atlantis (STS-135), which concluded with a textbook landing at Kennedy Space Center on the morning of July 21, 2011. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
› Watch NIC video of activity during Atlantis's final launch

Among Atlantis’s final contributions to the International Space Station is the Robotic Refueling Mission, developed at Goddard. This module will provide key support in maintaining future spacecraft for years to come. STS-135 (the final shuttle mission’s official designation) astronauts traveled to Goddard to complete special training for RRM.

In the 30-year flight history of the Shuttle Program, RRM is only one of dozens of payloads with Goddard tie-ins, ranging in size from massive, such as the 12-ton Hubble, to minute, such as 60-pound “Get Away Specials.”

Many Goddard scientists, engineers and managers got their starts with GAS canisters and other small payloads projects.

In the mid-1980s, Dr. James Garvin, then a fresh-faced geoscientist from Brown University, flew laser altimeter equipment aboard aircraft out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. In the mid-’90s, his team got the chance to adapt the technology for two space shuttle flights. With the Shuttle Laser Altimeter missions, “We realized we could ... measure the biomass of the planet,” Garvin said. “We started getting these booming echoes that turned out to be the tops of trees, and smaller returns from the ground underneath. ... What it did for us was show what we could actually do for Earth science.”

“The legacy of those experiments was the proving ground for what we have since accomplished in developing these LIDAR instruments for other planets,” Garvin said. “Everyone who worked on this project went on to really make a contribution to science.” Garvin is now Goddard’s chief scientist.

At a Goddard employee ceremony later in the morning, GOES-R Observatory Manager and former astronaut Paul Richards shared his own experiences with the shuttle, offering commentary on a replay of video from Atlantis's landing -- an experience he described as similar to "riding a roller coaster for 45 minutes."

"It's kind of bittersweet," Richards said of the Shuttle Program's conclusion. "I really hope that human spaceflight can continue in a manner, like it did for the shuttle, that can inspire [another] generation."

Center Director Rob Strain addressed employees about the significance of the Shuttle Program and Goddard's role in it. "Today we are here to salute the thousands of men and women who made the [shuttle] program a success," he said. "We salute your tireless dedication and commitment, and applaud you for a job well done. ... While this ends one chapter in the history of this agency, Goddard will continue to have a prominent role in the human spaceflight program."

NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden issued a statement about the 30-year program: "At today's final landing of the space shuttle, we had the rare opportunity to witness history. We turned the page on a remarkable era and began the next chapter in our nation's extraordinary story of exploration. ... This final shuttle flight marks the end of an era, but today, we recommit ourselves to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary -- and difficult -- steps to ensure America's leadership in human spaceflight for years to come."

Related Links

› GOGBlog: Paul Richards took one look at the first Space Shuttle launch and thought, "That's my ride."
› Growing Up at Goddard: Shuttle Small Payloads Launched Careers of Many
› RRM Flickr Gallery
› NASA’s Shuttle-Era Website
› Goddard's Role in Final Flight of Atlantis
› NASA Administrator Bolden's statement
Malissa Reyes, Karl Hille and Rob Garner
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.