Sitting on a rolling platform, the space shuttle Challenger emerges from the mist at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as it heads toward the launch pad, just visible in the distance, in November 1982. Challenger lifted off on its maiden voyage in April 1983 for the sixth shuttle mission.
When the space shuttle Atlantis lands on Thursday, it will wrap up STS-135, the final shuttle mission in the U.S. program's 30-year history. This shot is among those chosen by National Geographic photo editors as the most unforgettable pictures from the entire shuttle program.
Even with the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia, the space shuttle has become an icon among U.S. science and technology achievements. During the past three decades, shuttles carried the first U.S. woman and the first African American into space, deployed famous satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and delivered valuable parts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
"The space shuttle has been with us at the heart and soul of the human spaceflight program for about 30 years, and it's a little sad to see it go away," STS-135 mission commander Christopher Ferguson recently told reporters in a televised interview from the ISS.
"It's going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people that dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years. But we're going to try to keep it upbeat ... We're going to try to make it a celebration of the tremendous crowning achievements that have occurred."