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Welcome Home, Atlantis

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Today marks the end of an era. Three decades of missions came to a close this morning as the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida after a 13-day trip to the International Space Station. All told, the 135 space shuttle missions have racked up more than 542 million miles in low earth orbit. Commander Chris Ferguson piloted the Atlantis to a safe landing at 5:52 a.m., and the spacecraft will soon undergo processing and decommissioning. It has been an emotional experience for residents and workers along Florida's Space Coast -- some 9,000 shuttle engineers, technicians, and other staff are being laid off, and the main tourism draw for the area has come to an end. Shown here, for one last time, is a look at a full shuttle mission, STS-135, the final flight of Atlantis. Also, be sure to see The History of the Space Shuttle, an earlier entry on In Focus. [39 photos]

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A view of the space shuttle Atlantis and its payload on July 10, 2011, seen from the International Space Station. At the rear of the cargo bay is the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, packed with supplies and spare parts for the ISS. (NASA)
A view of the space shuttle Atlantis and its payload on July 10, 2011, seen from the International Space Station. At the rear of the cargo bay is the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, packed with supplies and spare parts for the ISS. (NASA)
NASA astronaut Doug Hurley waits in a pressure chamber before a test of his Sokol space suit at the Zvezda facility on Wednesday, March 30, 2011, in Moscow. The crew of the final shuttle mission traveled to Moscow for a suit fit check of their Russian Soyuz suits that will be required in the event of an emergency. (NASA/Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle) #
The STS-135 crew practices rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station in the Systems Engineering Simulator at the Johnson Space Center at the Johnson Space Center on Tuesday, June 28, 2011, in Houston, Texas. Commander Chris Ferguson is at back left, mission specialist Rex Walheim is at back right. Pilot Doug Hurley is at center. (NASA/Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle) #
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Space Shuttle Program's final solid rocket booster assembly is stationed in the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building. The right and left forward assemblies, which were refurbished and processed at Kennedy, are composed of three components -- nose cap, frustum and forward skirt. Inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, the boosters will be stacked and then joined to an external fuel tank and space shuttle Atlantis for the STS-135 mission to the International Space Station.(NASA/Frank Michaux) #
Space Shuttle crew members Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus during their STS-335 EVA training at the Johnson Space Center, on October 27, 2010. (NASA/Bill Stafford) #
NASA astronaut Rex Walheim, STS-135 mission specialist, simulates a space walk in the Virtual Reality Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center on Friday, May 13, 2011, in Houston. (NASA/Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle) #
The crew poses for a group photo under the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility during the STS-135 Crew Equipment Interface Test ( CEIT) at the Kennedy Space Center, on April 7, 2011, in Florida. ( NASA/Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle) #
STS-335 crew and training team during Payload Egress Training with instructor Patrick Jones and Bob Behrendsen at Johnson Space Center, on November 4, 2010. (NASA/James Blair) #
Technicians prepare shuttle Atlantis for its final planned move from Orbiter Processing Facility-1 to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA/Frankie Martin) #
In the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shuttle Atlantis is lifted by an overhead crane and moved into a high bay where it will be attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters already on the mobile launcher platform. (NASA/Troy Cryder) #
NASA astronaut Rex Walheim familiarizes himself with a camera he will use in space during the STS-135 Crew Equipment Interface Test (CEIT) in the Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, April 7, 2011, in Florida. (NASA/Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle) #
Bathed in xenon lights, space shuttle Atlantis embarks on its final journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It took the crawler-transporter about six hours to carry the shuttle, attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, to the seaside launch pad. (NASA/Kim Shiflett) #
Space shuttle Atlantis on launch Pad 39A, prepared for the last mission of the space shuttle program on July 7, 2011 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images) #
Thousands of spectators line the A.Max Brewer bridge in anticipation of the launch of the space shuttle Atlantiis in Titusville, Florida July 8, 2011. The 12-day mission to the International Space station is the last planned for the Space Shuttle Program. (Reuters/Hans Deryk) #
Chris Bray and his father were able to attend the very first Space Shuttle launch in 1981 (left), when he was 13 years old. Some thirty years later, the two were able to attend the final launch as well, and recreated the original image. Bray uploaded this pair of photos to Flickr last week, and it quickly went viral, touching the hearts of thousands around the world. Original here. (CC-BY-NC-ND Chris Bray) #
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on twin columns of flame from Launch Pad 39A headed for space on the STS-135 mission to the International Space Station. (NASA/Tony Gray and Tom Farrar) #
Kennedy Space Center employee Lisa Gorichky cries as Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off during the final space shuttle mission from the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, Florida July 8, 2011. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) #
Space shuttle Atlantis is seen as it launches from pad 39A on Friday, July 8, 2011, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (NASA/Bill Ingalls) #
At the Banana River Creek VIP viewing area at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, spectators smile with delight as they watch space shuttle Atlantis soar into space on its STS-135 mission to the International Space Station. (NASA/Chad Baumer) #
The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 8, 2011. (Reuters/Gary Hershorn) #
A condensation collar is visible around space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters and forward fuselage as the vehicle makes its last climb toward orbit on July 8, 2011. (NASA/Kenny Allen and George Roberts) #
The exhaust plume from space shuttle Atlantis viewed through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) after the shuttle lifted off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, July 8, 2011. (NASA/Dick Clark) #
Entry flight director Tony Ceccacci (left) reaches over a console for a congratulatory hand shake with NASA managers Norm Knight (right) and John McCullough after the successful launch of NASA space shuttle Atlantis at Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center July 08, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Bill Stafford/NASA via Getty Images) #
A man writes his name on a large sign wishing the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis STS-135 well after its lift off from launch pad 39A, at the visitors center of Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida July 8, 2011. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson) #
One of the four STS-135 crewmembers took this photo from space shuttle Atlantis' aft flight deck during the mission's second day of activities in Earth orbit. Earth's horizon and aft sections of the shuttle frame the orbiter boom sensor system (OBSS) on the starboard side of the spacecraft shortly before it was remotely maneuvered into position to start survey of the spacecraft's thermal protection system (TPS). (NASA) #
The Great Salt Lake in Utah serves as a striking visual marker for the STS-135 astronauts orbiting over North America in the space shuttle Atlantis on July 9, 2011. A sharp line across the lake's center is caused by the restriction in water flow from the railroad causeway. The eye-catching colors of the lake stem from the fact that Great Salt Lake is hypersaline, typically 3-5 times saltier than the ocean. (NASA) #
The small object at left is the International Space Station, which would appear as the only recognizable object in this dark image if it were not for the moon in the upper right. The photo was taken by one of the four crewmembers aboard the space shuttle Atlantis as it and the station gradually approached each other for a docking on July 10, 2011. (NASA) #
The space shuttle Atlantis, over the Bahamas, prior to a perfect docking with the International Space Station on July 10, 2011. Part of a Russian Progress spacecraft which is docked to the station is in the foreground. (NASA) #
The International Space Station, photographed by a crewmember onboard the space shuttle Atlantis as the two spacecraft performed rendezvous and docking operations on the STS-135 mission's third day in Earth orbit. (NASA) #
NASA astronaut Ron Garan, Expedition 28 flight engineer, takes photos of the Space Shuttle Atlantis from a window on the Zvezda service module on July 10, 2011. (NASA) #
This is one of a series of images showing various parts of the space shuttle Atlantis in Earth orbit as photographed by one of three crew members -- half the station crew -- who were equipped with still cameras for this purpose on the International Space Station as the shuttle "posed" for photos and visual surveys and performed a back-flip for the rendezvous pitch maneuver (RPM). (NASA) #
This image, photographed by NASA astronaut Ron Garan during the spacewalk conducted on July 12, 2011, shows the International Space Station with space shuttle Atlantis docked at right and a Russian Soyuz docked to Pirs, below the sun at far left. In the center foreground is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment installed during the STS-134 mission. AMS is a state-of-the-art particle physics detector designed to use the unique environment of space to advance knowledge of the universe and lead to the understanding of the universe's origin by searching for antimatter and dark matter, and measuring cosmic rays. (NASA) #
One of the Expedition 28 crew members aboard the International Space Station recorded this image of Earth's horizon and the moon during the week and a half period that the orbiting complex was hosting Atlantis and its crew for the final Space Shuttle Program mission. (NASA) #
With his feet secured on a restraint on the space station remote manipulator system's robotic arm or Canadarm2, NASA astronaut Mike Fossum holds the Robotics Refueling Mission payload, which was the focus of one of the primary chores accomplished on a six and a half hour spacewalk on July 12. NASA astronauts Fossum and Ron Garan performed the six-hour, 31-minute spacewalk, which represents the final scheduled extravehicular activity during shuttle missions. (NASA) #
This view of the space shuttle Atlantis while still docked with the International Space Station was taken by a crew member aboard the station on the final day of joint activities between the crew members for the STS-135 and Expedition 28 missions, July 18, 2011. Earth's airglow is seen as a thin line above Earth's horizon. (NASA) #
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (left), pilot for the STS-135 mission and Rex Walheim, mission specialist, on the flight deck of the space shuttle Atlantis after separation from the International Space Station. (NASA) #
The view From Space of Shuttle Atlantis, after separation, during its last flyaround of the ISS, on July 19, 2011. (Ron Garan/NASA) #
Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Thursday, July 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Terry Renna) #
Shuttle astronaut Sandy Magnus takes in the panoramic view of Earth from above, provided by the view out the multi-windowed Cupola of the ISS. (NASA) #

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