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Lockheed Martin graphic artist Jon Irving displays the "nose art" to be installed on the final space shuttle's external tank.
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updated 6/9/2011 11:53:15 AM ET 2011-06-09T15:53:15

When the space shuttle Atlantis launches on its final mission next month, it will be adorned with the same markings it has always been – the United States flag and the NASA logo – with one subtle but special addition.

Launch spectators may find it difficult to see, but painted on an access door near the top of the shuttle's fuel tank will be "nose art" paying tribute to the winged space vehicles' 30-year legacy. It'll be only the second time in 135 missions that the space shuttle has lifted off with a commemorative emblem painted on its side.

The colorful design, which was created and chosen earlier this year through a contest for NASA's past and present employees, has already been reproduced on medallions, embroidered cloth patches and t-shirts – some of which have already flown on board previous shuttle missions.

This next and last launch however, will mark its premiere on the side of a spacecraft. Atlantis is due to launch on July 8 to mark the final flight of NASA's shuttle program.

But don't go searching for it just yet. Even though space shuttle Atlantis arrived on the launch pad last week, the hand-painted hatch is still waiting to be installed on the fuel tank during the weeks leading up to liftoff.

Gem of an emblem
The logo, which was designed by an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, depicts the shuttle set against a diamond-shaped background.

Artist Blake Dumesnil described his emblem as having been inspired by how the shuttle has been "an innovative, iconic gem in the history of American spaceflight." His insignia's jewel-like facets fan out to "evoke the vastness of space and our aim to explore it, as the shuttle has done successfully for decades."

The logo also evokes an old tagline for the vehicle. When the first shuttle launched in April 1981, it was dubbed "The Gem of the Galaxy."

The central element of Dumesnil's logo, the space shuttle itself, is bounded by panels showing the U.S. flag and two sets of stars: 14 in memory of the astronauts lost aboard orbiters Challenger and Columbia and five symbolizing the shuttle fleet including Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis.

The emblem's jewel shape is cradled by the outline of a blue circle, symbolizing the orbiter's realm in Earth orbit but also alluding "to the smoothness of the shuttle orbiting the Earth," according to Dumesnil.

The artwork is finished with the inscription "Space Shuttle Program" and the years that the space planes flew, "1981" through "2011."

NASA / Jack Pfaller
Bright xenon lights flare while space shuttle Atlantis rolls down a 3.4-mile stretch of river rocks, as the vehicle embarks on its historic final journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 31.

Second shuttle 'nose art'
Dumesnil's design was hand-painted onto the 3-foot-high by 5-foot-wide intertank access door by Lockheed Martin artist Jon Irving at the external tanks' Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

It was the second fuel tank door that Irving was tasked to paint.

The first, which launched with Endeavour's final flight last month, featured artwork celebrating that tank's repair after being damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

John DesForges, Lockheed Martin's manager or "missile mother" for Endeavour's STS-134 tank, ET-122, designed the motivational logo for the company's workforce, which was completing the repairs. The art showed the shuttle led by its external tank flying through the eye of the storm.

As a nod to their effort, NASA requested that DesForges' emblem be painted on the tank's graphite-epoxy intertank access door before ET-122 departed Michoud for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was the first time that NASA had authorized an aesthetic change to the external tank since the shuttle's first two tanks were painted all white.

Originally however, ET-122 wasn't expected to fly; instead it was assigned to stand ready to launch Atlantis should Endeavour's crew need rescuing. Congress then approved the funding for the "launch-on-need" mission to become the final space shuttle flight, STS-135.

As part of that decision, Endeavour and Atlantis switched tanks. ET-122 fueled Endeavour for the next-to-last flight and external tank 138 (ET-138) was mated with Atlantis to fly the last.

One-way door
ET-138 was already in Florida when NASA decided to add Dumesnil's commemorative emblem to the final external tank.

Instead of flying Irving to the Cape and having him paint the logo on the side of the 154-foot-high standing tank, he decorated a spare door at Michoud, which was then flown to Kennedy Space Center to be installed out on the launch pad.

Dumesnil's and Irving's art will fly to space with Atlantis on a one-way trip.

Unlike the other parts of the space shuttle, the orbiter and its twin solid rocket boosters, which will be recovered, the external tank will fall back into the atmosphere and break apart under the friction of re-entry.

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The last time the logo will be seen is when Atlantis' crew turns its cameras back at the tank as it falls away from the orbiter.

Atlantis will then fly on to the International Space Station, where it will deliver supplies before returning to Earth itself for a planned landing on the morning of July 20.

You can follow collectSpace on Twitter @ collectSPACE and editor Robert Pearlman @ robertpearlman. Copyright 2011 collectSpace.com. All rights reserved.

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Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

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  1. Atlantis rising

    The space shuttle Atlantis makes its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, for the Defense Department's STS-51-J mission. At 176,413 pounds, Atlantis is nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, which was the heaviest shuttle. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 3 pounds less than the shuttle Endeavour (with the three main engines). Atlantis is also the last space shuttle to be retired.

    Other statistics:
    Length: 122.17 feet
    Height: 56.58 feet
    Wingspan: 78.06 feet (Phil Sandlin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First of its kind

    NASA's Magellan spacecraft is deployed from Atlantis' cargo bay in 1989 during the STS-30 mission. The Venus orbiter was the first interplanetary probe launched from a space shuttle. Later that year, Atlantis launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mission to Mir

    NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation during the STS-71 mission in June 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia's Mir space station for the first time. This historic photo of the linked spacecraft was taken from a Russian Soyuz capsule during a fly-around. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Here's looking at you

    The space shuttle Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in September 1996. This dramatic view, looking directly down onto the shuttle stack, was taken from the roof of the 525-foot-tall VAB. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Science in orbit

    Astronaut Shannon Lucid floats through the tunnel that connects Spacelab to Atlantis' cabin on Sept. 24, 1996. The Spacelab module rode in the shuttle's cargo bay and provided more space for scientific experiments. During this STS-79 mission, Atlantis linked up with Russia's Mir space station and brought Lucid back to Earth. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Lighting up the night

    Atlantis streaks into the early morning sky from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 15, 1997, as seen in this long-exposure photo taken from Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Fla. Atlantis' 10-day STS-84 mission featured a docking with Russia's Mir space station and a crew transfer. Atlantis docked with Mir seven times before the space station was deorbited in 2001. (Brian Cleary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Good as new

    The space shuttle Atlantis went back to its assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., for 10 months of refurbishment and upgrades in 1997-1998. This aerial photo shows Atlantis taking a piggyback ride back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 jet on Sept. 1, 1998. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Checking it out

    Atlantis' upgraded cockpit gets a once-over in 1999 from engineers and executives, including Roy Bridges, Kennedy Space Center's director (seated at bottom left), as well as Laural Patrick, Joann Morgan and George Selina. The upgrades made Atlantis the most modern orbiter in the shuttle fleet, with a control system as advanced as those found on commercial jet airliners and military aircraft. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tile tune-up

    Izeal Battle, a worker from United Space Alliance, repairs heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 30, 2004. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Back in business

    Atlantis' astronauts leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board the "Astrovan" for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B on Sept. 8, 2006, while gun-toting guards keep watch. A faulty fuel gauge grounded the shuttle for an extra day, but on Sept. 9 the shuttle lifted off on its STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. It marked Atlantis' first launch since 2002. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff!

    The space shuttle Atlantis rises on a pillar of cloud from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, 2006. Atlantis delivered structural components to the International Space Station during its STS-115 mission, resuming an orbital construction project that was stopped following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mission accomplished

    The clouds of Earth provide a backdrop for Atlantis shortly after its departure from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2006. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Night landing

    Atlantis lands amid darkness at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 21, 2006, bringing the STS-115 space station construction mission to a successful close. (Chris O'Meara / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kicking the tires

    Atlantis crew members Chris Ferguson and Dan Burbank look over their spaceship after landing at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 21, 2006. Ferguson was slated to be Atlantis' commander for NASA's final space shuttle mission. (Pierre Ducharme / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Blaze of glory

    The space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters light up for launch on June 8, 2007, beginning a flight to the International Space Station. This STS-117 mission marked the 250th orbital human spaceflight. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Watching the ascent

    NASA mission managers monitor Atlantis' liftoff from Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16, 2009. During the STS-129 mission, Atlantis delivered a payload platform and vital supplies to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Shuttle skywriting

    Nearly an hour after launch, contrails from the shuttle Atlantis' liftoff float above the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 8, 2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Last visit to Hubble

    Spacewalkers Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld work on the Hubble Space Telescope on May 16, 2009, during Atlantis' STS-125 mission. This marked the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Making a list

    Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino writes notes on a checklist during the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission on May 18, 2009. During this mission, Massimino became the first astronaut to send a Twitter update from orbit: "Launch was awesome!!" (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. First Family meets Atlantis

    NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia beneath the shuttle Atlantis during a tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2011. At the time, Atlantis was being prepared for its final flight. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Final flight

    Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. The shuttle fleet's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, brought supplies to the international space station. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Witnessing history

    Spectators watch the liftoff of Atlantis on its final mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Last rendezvous

    The space shuttle Atlantis docks with the International Space Station for the last time on July 10, 2011. The shuttle delivered more than four tons of food, clothes and other supplies to keep the space station going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned at least through the end of 2012. (NASA TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flight into history

    This poster pays tribute to the shuttle Atlantis' quarter-century of spaceflight: Graphic elements include the International Space Station and Russia's Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope (which Atlantis visited during the last servicing mission) and Venus and Jupiter (which were the destinations for probes launched from Atlantis). Threaded through the design are the mission patches for each of Atlantis' flights. A copy of this tribute poster hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Amy Lombardo / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre. 'After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It's come to a final stop,' Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied. (Nasa / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz, left, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land on July 21, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 21, 2011. The Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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