Atlantis has landed, ending NASA’s shuttle era

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., (Reuters) – The space shuttle  Atlantis returned from NASA’s final shuttle mission yesterday, ending a 30-year era that opened the space frontier,  exposed its dangers and established a toehold for future  endeavors beyond Earth.

NASA workers lined the runway at the Kennedy Space Center  before dawn to greet Atlantis and its crew upon their return  from a successful 13-day cargo run to the International Space  Station and to celebrate the conclusion of the shuttle program  after 135 flights.

“I saw grown men and and grown women crying today, tears of  joy to be sure,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach.  “Human emotions came out the runway today. You couldn’t  suppress them.”

Sailing through an unusually clear and moonlit night,  Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson gently steered the 100-tonne  spaceship high overhead, then nose-dived toward the  swamp-surrounded landing strip a few miles from where Atlantis  will go on display as a museum piece.

Double sonic booms shattered the silence around the space  center, the last time residents will hear the distinctive sound  of a shuttle coming home.

Ferguson eased Atlantis onto the runway at 5:57 a.m. EDT  (0957 GMT), ending a 5.2 million-mile (8.4 million-km) journey  and closing a key chapter in human space flight history.

“Mission complete, Houston,” Ferguson radioed to Mission  Control.

Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana later told  reporters: “It’s been our number one goal the last couple of  years to safely fly out the shuttle program, and we  accomplished that.”

Atlantis’ landing capped a three-decade-long program that  made spaceflight appear routine, despite two fatal accidents  that killed 14 astronauts and destroyed two of NASA’s five  spaceships.

The last accident investigation board recommended the  shuttles be retired after construction was finished on the  space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations. That  milestone was reached this year, leaving the orbiting research  station as the shuttle program’s crowning legacy.

“Its job is done and we got them back and can put them  safely in museums and be proud of what they did,” said veteran  astronaut Stephen Robinson, who was among those on the runway.

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