CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Atlantis and four astronauts returned from the International Space Station in triumph Thursday, bringing an end to NASA’s 30-year shuttle journey with one last, rousing touchdown that drew cheers and tears.
A record crowd of 2,000 gathered near the landing strip, thousands more packed the space center and countless others watched history unfold from afar as NASA’s longest-running spaceflight program came to a close.
“After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle’s earned its place in history. And it’s come to a final stop,” radioed commander Christopher Ferguson. “Job well done, America,” replied Mission Control.
The twilight landing, just before dawn, came 30 years and three months after the very first shuttle flight in 1981. It will be another three to five years at best before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil, with private companies gearing up to seize the Earth-to-orbit-and-back baton from NASA.
The long-term future for American space exploration is just as hazy, a huge concern for many at NASA and all those losing their jobs because of the shuttle’s end. Asteroids and Mars are the destinations of choice, yet NASA has yet to settle on a rocket design to get astronauts there.
Thursday, though, belonged to Atlantis and its crew: Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, who completed a successful space station resupply mission.
Atlantis’ main landing gears touched down at 5:57 a.m., with “wheels stop” less than a minute later.
“The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it’s changed the way we view our universe,” said Ferguson. “There’s a lot of emotion today, but one thing’s indisputable. America’s not going to stop exploring.
“Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end.”
The astronauts’ families and friends, as well as shuttle managers and NASA brass, gathered near the runway to welcome Atlantis home — and bid the shuttle program goodbye. Mission Control in Houston also was packed, teeming with past and present flight directors. Hundreds of other Johnson Space Center employees stood outside, watching the landing on a jumbo screen.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)