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Then and Now: When Crews Last Launched from American Soil

Catherine Ragin Williams |
May 18, 2020

On May 27, for the first time in nine years, American astronauts will launch from American soil into space. Their destination? The International Space Station during SpaceX Demonstration Mission-2, commonly known as DM-2.

On July 8, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for STS-135, marking the last mission for shuttle to begin a period where Russian Soyuz spacecraft would ferry American astronauts for to the space station for their expeditions.

Workers measured and marked in bright red the letters “MLG” at the spot where Atlantis' main landing gear came to rest after the vehicle’s final return from space. Securing the space shuttle fleet's place in history on the STS-135 mission, Atlantis safely and successfully rounded out NASA’s Space Shuttle Program on the Shuttle Landing Facility’s Runway 15 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Main gear touchdown was at 5:57:00 a.m. EDT, followed by nose gear touchdown at 5:57:20 a.m., and wheelstop at 5:57:54 a.m. Image Credit: NASA/Kyle Herring

NASA is welcoming partnerships with commercial companies like SpaceX and Boeing, who will eventually take over the ferrying flights as NASA’s focuses on the next phase of exploration: the Moon by 2024.

Things have changed since then. Take a look and how things were … and how things are as DM-2 anticipates launching an American crew at the end of May 2020.

Crew: Then and Now


Left: The STS-135 crew members pause for a final photograph in front of space shuttle Atlantis. From left are: Commander Chris Ferguson, Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialist Rex Walheim. Image Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett. Right: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley, wearing SpaceX spacesuits, walk through the Crew Access Arm connecting the launch tower to the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft during a dress rehearsal at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 17, 2020. Image Credit: SpaceX

Spacecraft: Then and Now

Left: Riding a plume of fire, Atlantis heads into the cloud-laden sky over Launch Pad 39A Image Credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Tom Farrar. Right: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon attached, rolls out of the company’s hangar at Launch Complex 39A on Jan. 3, 2019. The rocket will undergo checkouts prior to the liftoff of Demo-2, the inaugural flight of one of the spacecraft designed to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Image Credit: SpaceX


Mission Objectives: Then and Now


Left: On the 37th shuttle mission to the space station, STS-135 delivered more than 9,400 pounds of spare parts, equipment and supplies in the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module that will sustain station operations for the next year. STS-135 was the 33rd and final flight for Atlantis, which spent 307 days in space, orbited Earth 4,848 times and traveled 125,935,769 miles. Here, Atlantis is photographed from station as it flies over the Bahamas prior to docking with the station. The Raffaello multipurpose logistics module can be seen inside the cargo bay. Image Credit: NASA. Right: NASA has worked with SpaceX and Boeing in developing Commercial Crew Program spacecraft to facilitate new human spaceflight systems launching from U.S. soil with the goal of safe, reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit destinations such as the space station. This second demonstration mission of the Crew Dragon spacecraft is another end-to-end flight test of SpaceX’s human spaceflight system, which will include launch, docking, splashdown and recovery operations. It is the final flight test of the system before SpaceX is certified to carry out operational crew flights to and from the space station for NASA.


For fun …

Cell Phone Technology: Then and Now


Left: Apple iPhone 4S retailed starting at $199. Right: Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max retails starting at $1,099. Image Credits: Apple

Grammy’s Best New Artist: Then and Now


Left: Esperanza Spalding. Image Credit: Right: Billie Eilish. Image Credit:

Amazon Bestselling Book: Then and Now


Left: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. Right: “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens (so far).

Highest-Grossing Movie Domestic Box Office: Then and Now


Left: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2;” Right: “Bad Boys for Life” (so far) (source: Box Office Mojo).

Super Bowl: Then and Now


Left: Green Bay Packers win big. Right: Kansas City takes home the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Across the Pond: Then and Now


Left: An estimated 2 billion people tuned in to watch the televised wedding of Britain's Prince William to Kate Middleton. Right: Queen Elizabeth II turns 94 on April 21, 2020, with muted celebrations. 

Average price of gas per gallon in Texas (regular unleaded): Then and Now


Then: $3.67 (source: GasBuddy). Now: $1.52 (source: AAA).

Best Place to Work in the Federal Government: Then and Now


In 2011, NASA was fifth overall. But, in 2019, for the eighth consecutive year, we ranked #1! (source:

Pictured is an illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

NASA and SpaceX are targeting 3:32 p.m. CDT Wednesday, May 27, for the launch of the Demo-2 flight. Be sure to tune in to watch history in action!