Remembering STS-135, the final Space Shuttle launch, 2 years ago today

Space shuttle Atlantis launches for the STS-135 mission to the International Space Station in the final mission of the Space Shuttle Program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Liftoff was at 11:29 a.m. (EDT) on July 8, 2011. Onboard were NASA astronauts Chris Ferguson, STS-135 commander; Doug Hurley, pilot; Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim, both mission specialists. Photo credit: NASA Photo/Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool

Space fans around the world today mark a bittersweet milestone: two years since the final Space Shuttle launch, STS-135, on July 8, 2011.

I was there watching Miles O'Brien and the SpaceFlight Now live webcast crew do their thing. Like everyone who was fortunate enough to be there that day, I'll never forget it. Even the snapshots I Flickr'd that day make me tear up. The rocket boosters' red glare, the sonic booms bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our space program was still there. Of course, America still has a space program, but things have changed.

Atlantis and her crew landed safely on July 21, 2011, and you can see her at KSC in a beautiful new exhibit.

But it's sad to think back on those glorious shuttle launches and know they'll never happen again. For so many people, they were like seasons with which to mark the unfolding of one's own life.

Perhaps no one feels that loss as closely as the space laborers Miles O'Brien lovingly referred to as "The Shuttle Shokunin."

Above: Miles O'Brien covered more than 40 space shuttle launches. He led CNN's coverage of the loss of space shuttle, Columbia, and co-anchored astronaut John Glenn's return-to-space mission with television news legend Walter Cronkite. Just before the final liftoff, he reported to PBS NewsHour on "Shuttle ennui." I remember the day we shot this, in the back yard of the Inn at Cocoa Beach, which is near Cape Canaveral. It's one of many Florida towns where the local economy was wrecked after the shuttle program ended.

Below, Miles on what the end of the shuttle program meant for Florida and where the program fell short.

Video from cameras mounted on the two solid rocket boosters that helped propel space shuttle Atlantis into orbit on July 8, the last shuttle mission in US space history. Video shows launch from Kennedy Space Center, and the rocket boosters' subsequent water landing downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.

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