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Review: STS-135 Atlantis: Covering the Last Shuttle Ever

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STS-135 Atlantis: Covering the Last Shuttle Ever
by Lloyd Behrendt
CreateSpace, 2015
paperback, 48 pp., illus
ISBN 978-1-5052-4606-3

Time flies, even when the Space Shuttle doesn’t. It’s been more than four years since the final shuttle mission, STS-135, touched down back at the Kennedy Space Center in July 2011. The program has gradually faded from the public consciousness as NASA presses ahead on its dual approach to human spaceflight: Orion and Space Launch System for deep space exploration, and commercial crew for flights to the International Space Station, initiatives that each have their own critics and issues.

The shuttles, though, have not been completely lost to history. The four orbiters (counting Enterprise) are now ensconced in their museum homes, seen by thousands of people every day. And even NASA hasn’t forgotten them: recently technicians went to Endeavour, at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, to remove water tanks from inside the orbiter, after doing so for Atlantis at KSC; the tanks are being considered for use on the ISS to expand the station’s water supply.

Behrendt decided to “Matthew Brady” the final mission, painting silver prints with oils. The resulting “photo oils” offer an artistic flair.

But for those who want to look back to when the shuttles were flying, and not merely museum pieces to be cannibalized for parts, STS-135 Atlantis: Covering the Last Shuttle Ever offers an enjoyable trip down memory lane. Lloyd Behrendt is one of the relatively few photographers who covered every shuttle mission, both the routine and high-profile, for years, documenting launches, landings, and less visible activity. This book is his recollection of that final shuttle mission in both words and photos.

The book is not intended to be a formal history of STS-135, but instead his personal account of covering the various aspects of the mission. That includes the launch and landing, of course, but also the activities leading up to launch and after landing: rollover, rollout, towback, and so on. These provide plenty of glamorous photo opportunities, but a lot of unglamorous (and usually unappreciated) work to get those shots.

And, yes, there are photos in the book of all of those events, as you’d expect. But rather than standard photos, shot digitally, Behrendt decided to “Matthew Brady” the final mission, painting silver prints with oils. The resulting “photo oils” offer an artistic flair: they’re clearly based on photographs, but with an artist’s touch when it comes to coloring and shading. With the final shuttle mission being one of the most photographed events in the recent history of spaceflight, this approach is a different, and welcome, take on documenting that mission.

For someone as invested in the shuttle as Behrendt—he covered more than 50 shuttle missions—you might expect some bitterness that some involved in the program felt when it came to an end. But that doesn’t really come through in the book: the shuttle program is a “heritage sadly squandered,” he writes, but he remains optimistic about the future, both government-led and commercial. (There is, perhaps a little bitterness about being denied the opportunity to go on the runway after Atlantis’s landing for a photo opportunity while others, including “some not-so-journalists,” were allowed to participate.)

STS-135 Atlantis: Covering the Last Shuttle Ever, as noted above, is not a detailed history of the mission, but instead a personal account of what it was like for someone behind the camera, shooting the photos we often take for granted from those missions, to chronicle that last flight. It’s perhaps best suited for shuttle aficionados rather than a general audience, but those who have followed—or covered—shuttle missions will likely enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes tales in the book. The shuttles may no longer be flying, but their memories live on.