May 21, 2010 at 10:50 PM ET
Silhouettes of the shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station pass over
the sun's disk in a May 16 picture captured by astrophotographer Thierry Legault.
Click on the image to see a larger view from Legault's website, Astrophoto.fr.
The space shuttle Atlantis' final mission is hitting new heights for fantastic pictures - in part because every flight brings improvements in NASA's capability to capture imagery, and in part because photographers are taking extra care to document the end of the shuttle era. For us earthbound spectators, it's the next best thing to being there.
For example, in the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy, the space agency mounted an array of cameras on the shuttle's solid-rocket boosters. Those cameras capture images from different perspectives during the ascent from the launch pad - and when the boosters fall back into the sea, the video is retrieved and checked for any signs of damage to the shuttle.
In addition to ensuring the shuttle's safety, the video makes for a great show. You can feel as if you're riding a rocket all the way up to space and then falling back to Earth. You can even see the shadow of the rocket plume stretching out from the launch pad as you ascend. Give it a look:
Click for video: The shuttle Atlantis leaves its solid-rocket boosters behind on
May 14 to head for orbit and the International Space Station. Click on the image
to watch a compilation of "rocket-cam" views.
As Atlantis caught up to the International Space Station, astrophotographer Thierry Legault snapped a picture of the two spaceships silhouetted against the sun's disk. Legault has earned recognition as one of the world's most dedicated amateur space shooters, and you'll find plenty of out-of-this-world shots at his website, Astrophoto.fr. Space.com has the full story behind the picture you see at the top of this item, which was taken from Madrid, Spain, less than an hour before Atlantis docked with the space station.
The picture below shows what the astronauts on the International Space Station were seeing at about the same time. In the foreground, Atlantis is in the midst of its pre-docking maneuvers. In the background, the coast of Spain sweeps around the Gulf of Cadiz.
Before every docking, the space shuttle does a 360-degree flip so that astronauts aboard the station can snap hundreds of high-resolution pictures of the spaceship's protective skin. Those pictures are downlinked so that engineers on the ground can once again check for damage. Click on the picture to watch a high-speed video that gives you the high points of the eight-minute maneuver in just 30 seconds:
Click for video: The space shuttle Atlantis approaches the International Space
Station on May 16 with its payload bay doors open. The Atlantic coast of Spain
and the Gulf of Cadiz can be seen far below. Click on the image to watch a
time-compressed video of the shuttle's pre-docking "backflip."
NASA has been putting out tons of great pictures during the docked phase of Atlantis' mission. Check out the NASA Human Spaceflight website and NASA's shuttle multimedia page as well as the picture gallery on display at Universe Today. The picture below is particularly poignant, because it may be one of the last good views of Atlantis hooked up to the space station:
A camera on the International Space Station shows the shuttle Atlantis docked to
the station's Destiny laboratory on May 17. Click on the picture for a larger version.
We can look forward to more great pictures from the mission over the weekend, when Atlantis is due to pull away from the space station and take some snapshots of the orbital outpost during the shuttle's traditional "fly-around." The landing will be another picturesque and bittersweet moment, because it could well be Atlantis' final touchdown before retirement.
But this isn't the end of the road for Atlantis. Not yet. The spaceship will be put through yet another round of processing so that it can stand by as a backup rescue vehicle for the last scheduled shuttle mission, due for launch no earlier than November. Even if Atlantis stays put then (which we all hope will be the case), there's a chance that NASA will get the go-ahead to use the orbiter for an extra space station supply mission in mid-2011.
To get an idea of what will happen to Atlantis after it lands, check out this must-see video on the Air & Space website. Photographers Scott Andrews, Stan Jirman and Philip Scott Andrews painstakingly documented the pre-launch processing routine for the shuttle Discovery in advance of its April mission to the space station. The time-lapse photography squeezes six weeks of NASA awesomeness into a four-minute video clip:
Jim Grossmann / NASA
Click for video: The shuttle Discovery is brought into the Vehicle Assembly
Building on Feb. 22 in preparation for its STS-131 flight to the International Space
Station in April. Click on the image to watch an Air & Space time-lapse video
tracking Discovery's route from its previous landing to the STS-131 launch.
The mini-documentary, which was conceived with the help of STS-131 shuttle commander Alan Poindexter and created with the full cooperation of the space agency, serves as a fitting record showing how NASA gets the world's most complex flying machine ready for outer space.
What are your thoughts as the first "last shuttle mission" nears its close? Feel free to add your comments below.
Update for 11 p.m. ET May 21: We've also added a few new pictures to the collection of launch pictures submitted by msnbc.com users - including some golden oldies from the shuttle fleet's heyday.
Update for 1 p.m. ET May 22: One of the most active shutterbugs ever to live on the space station is Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who has shared more than 600 pictures on his Twitpic website. Some of the pictures show scenes inside the station, but the large majority of them are jaw-droppingly beautiful views of Earth.
Few pictures merit that "jaw-dropping" label more than the image below - a view of Atlantis docked to the space station, with Japan's laboratory module, a dark planet, the bright moon and the green glow of the aurora in the background. Astroengine blogger Ian O'Neill says "this should be the photograph of Atlantis' final mission."
Like Atlantis, Noguchi is nearing the end of his current stint in space. He's due to return to Earth aboard a Soyuz spaceship early next month. Here's hoping there'll always be such active (and generous) witnesses to the wonders of the cosmos:
Soichi Noguchi / JAXA via Twitpic
A photo by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi shows the shuttle Atlantis docked to
the International Space Station with an auroral glow in the background. Click on
the picture to see a larger version on Noguchi's Twitpic site.