With the pre-dawn landing of the space shuttle Atlantis in Florida this morning, this thirty year long program of manned space flight has come to an end. This mission was the 135th space shuttle mission, and was officially designated STS-135 (STS is short for Space Transportation System).
This is the end of an era of manned space flight that began with the challenge issued by President John F Kennedy on May 25, 1961. "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth," President Kennedy said at the time. Work toward that goal progressed through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. President Kennedy's challenge was fulfilled on July 16, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. Flights under the Apollo program continued through 1975.
The space shuttle program first reached into space on April 12, 1981, with a flight of just over two days. Subsequent missions have carried a variety of satellites into orbit (including the Hubble Space Telescope), carried various orbital experiments and technology developments, and performed a number of more mundane missions including satellite repair and carrying modules and supplies for the International Space Station.
The space shuttle program was originally conceived to involve many more launches, and much more frequent launches, than have actually occurred. The idea was to have up to 50 shuttle launches per year, with the reusable vehicle intended to drive down launch and operating per-mission costs. (The space shuttle is the only reusable vehicle ever launched into space.) Each shuttle was designed to have a working life of 100 flights over a 10 year period. The three surviving shuttles (of the five that were built not counting the non-space-qualified Enterprise test vehicle) have all had longer working lives with many fewer launches; Atlantis ended its career today at the close of its 33rd flight.
With today's end of the space shuttle program, the United States has no manned space flight capability.
First Launch April 12, 1981
Final Landing July 22, 2011
135 Total Flights