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.