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Space shuttle in space
Nasa is approaching the end of an era with the retirement of the space shuttle.
The oldest craft in the fleet, Discovery, completed its final voyage in March, while Endeavour finished its career in April. The launch of Atlantis on Friday marks the 135th and final space shuttle mission.
For more than 30 years the space shuttle has been the workhorse of Nasa, carrying hundreds of astronauts into space, launching numerous satellites and helping to construct the International Space Station. Pictured above is Challenger in orbit in 1983.
The space shuttle's story began in 1969, months after the moon landing, when US officials began putting thought into a reusable spacecraft that would replace the Saturn rockets that had powered the Apollo missions.
Following on from designs tested by Nasa throughout the 1950s and 60s, the space shuttle had evolved by 1972 into an orbiter craft that was carried into space on rockets and returned to Earth unpowered, landing like a conventional glider — albeit one that weighs over 100 tons.
Photo credit: Nasa