It's an amazing scene: A NASA space shuttle rocketing into space while U.S. Air Force pilots watch from their airborne F-15E Strike Eagle jet fighter. The stunning snapshot was taken May 14 as NASA's shuttle Atlantis soared into orbit on its final scheduled mission.
Air Force Capt. John Peltier took the photograph from a separate aircraft. In the photo, Lt. Col. Gabriel Green and Capt. Zachary Bartoe patrol the airspace around NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the foreground while Atlantis streaks spaceward, leaving a white exhaust plume in its wake.? [See more Atlantis launch photos.]
Green commands the Air Force's 333rd Fighter Squadron and Captain Bartoe is the squadron's weapons system officer. Both aircrew members are assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
Atlantis' STS-132 flight was the shuttle's 32nd and final planned mission to space. The 11-day spaceflight delivered a new Russian research room and vital spare parts to the International Space Station.? NASA is retiring its three space shuttles (Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour) after just two more missions.
Discovery, the oldest shuttle in NASA's fleet, is slated to launch on its final mission to deliver a storage room for the space station and a robot tenant called Robonaut 2. The final space shuttle mission, Endeavour's STS-134 flight to deliver a $1.5 billion astrophysics experiment to the space station.
NASA is seeking to delay those final shuttle missions, to Oct. 29 and Feb. 28, 2011, respectively. A final decision on the launch plan is expected in the next few weeks.