Opinion: Historic photo of Atlantis returning to Earth -- as seen from space

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We’ve all seen five-million-pound U.S. space shuttles launch from Florida, 135 times to be exact.

We’ve all seen them land back on Earth, 133 times to be exact.

But not until the very last space shuttle flight did we ever get to see what the giant craft’s return to the atmosphere looks like -- from space.

The crew of the International Space Station caught this unprecedented view above of Atlantis’ fiery re-entry early Thursday morning, Eastern time.


After this photo was taken Atlantis plummeted into and through the atmosphere where its wings could finally do their thing after the vacuum of space. It was going 14 times the speed of sound over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Atlantis dropped 200 feet per second.

P.S. Now we have a personal video of Atlantis’ reentry as seen from Cancun, Mexico. Scroll down to the bottom.

Thirteen minutes later, having circled to scrub off speed, the 225,000-pound glider lumbered over the end of Kennedy Space Center’s Runway 15 for the last time at 205 knots to begin its groundbound retirement. Technicians can’t go beneath the orbiter for 30 minutes after landing, so hot are its protective tiles.

The pre-dawn radio traffic was full of self-congratulations for the thousands involved in the three-decade effort to explore. NASA plans a 4 p.m. CT public shuttle celebration today at Hangar 990 on Houston’s Ellington Airfield to be carried live on NASA-TV.

The four-member Atlantis crew lingered longer than necessary in the cockpit. So did the control room crews at Kennedy and Houston, as they completed their duties for the last time with thousands of highly-skilled technicians in Florida and Texas now heading for unemployment.

However, the end of the shuttle program appears just the beginning of political battles over pioneering American astronauts now being forced to rent $63 million seats on Russian Soyuz capsules in order to reach space.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, probably a Republican presidential candidate soon, noted the shuttle’s demise will cost Houston’s manned space flight headquarters alone some 4,000 jobs ‘forcing NASA away from its original purpose of space exploration and ignoring its groundbreaking past and enormous future potential.’

In his strongly-worded Thursday message, Perry added:

Forty-two years ago yesterday, America captured the world’s imagination by putting a man on the moon, highlighting an era of excellence in space exploration. Unfortunately, with the final landing of the Shuttle Atlantis and no indication of plans for future missions, this administration has set a significantly different milestone by shutting down our nation’s legacy of leadership in human spaceflight and exploration, leaving American astronauts with no alternative but to hitchhike into space.


Atlantis’ career stats

What’s it really like to be in space

The view from Atlantis: Out of this world

-- Andrew Malcolm

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