The space shuttle era officially ended early Thursday as Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The space-shuttle era officially ended early Thursday as Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center.
After two signature sonic booms, the spacecraft seemed to suddenly drop out of the darkness on the three-mile runway, completing its long glide home from orbit.
The safe return of a shuttle and its crew is always a cause for celebration but this one — the final landing after 135 missions spanning 30 years — was a moment of both triumph and melancholy.
“I saw grown men and grown women crying today, tears of joy to be sure,” said launch director Mike Leinbach. “Human emotions came out on the runway today, and you couldn’t suppress them.”
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In Houston, flight director Tony Ceccacci, who presided over Atlantis’ safe return, choked up while signing off from Mission Control for the final time.
“The work done in this room, in this building, will never again be duplicated,” he told his team before the doors opened and the center filled with dozens of past and present flight controllers.
Shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew seized every opportunity to thank the thousands of workers who got them safely to and from orbit and guided them through the 13-day flight.
“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,” he radioed after Atlantis touched down.
“We copy your wheels stop,” Mission Control replied. “Job well done, America.”
The next mission for Atlantis will be as a tourist attraction. America’s astronaut corps will be consigned to hitching rides aboard Russian rockets, at least for the next few years until private companies prove they can safely fly in space.
And an additional 2,300 workers at the space center will get pink slips within the week, the latest in continuing waves of layoffs that will eventually add up to some 8,000 lost jobs for Florida’s Space Coast.
The last mission was a 13-day trip intended primarily to restock the international space station with supplies and spare parts. But history and the uncertain future of America’s space program gave the final flight poignancy and weight. At Mission Control in Houston, the viewing room was filled with former flight directors and their families.
It was, said NASA mission commentator Rob Navias as Atlantis burned through the atmosphere, a “day of mixed emotions.”
Atlantis alone wracked up 307 days in space and traveled nearly 126 million miles during its 33 flights.
NASA’s long-term plans are to develop rockets and vehicles capable of visiting Mars or an asteroid but both goals likely remain at least a decade away — and will depend greatly on political and budgetary support that will pose challenges to maintain as Washington focuses on slashing federal spending.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.