Atlantis Completes Final Landing of Shuttle Era

Posted July 21st, 2011 at 2:55 pm (UTC-5)
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The space shuttle Atlantis returned home Thursday, bringing NASA's final shuttle mission to an end after three decades.

Hundreds of well-wishers and onlookers welcomed the four astronauts aboard Atlantis as it touched down just before 10:00 UTC at the Kennedy Space Center in the southeastern state of Florida.

Commander Christopher Ferguson said that after serving the world, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and has come to a final stop. He said the shuttle has changed the way the world and the universe are viewed.

NASA controllers on the ground said the shuttle program fired the imagination of a generation, securing its place in history.

Atlantis' 13-day mission capped off its 33rd and final flight after 26 years in service. The fourth shuttle in NASA's fleet, Atlantis first flew into space in October 1985. The shuttle has made 200 orbits around Earth and a journey of more than eight-and-a-half million kilometers.

The crew departed from the International Space Station on Tuesday after an eight-day visit to deliver a year's worth of supplies, and haul trash and used equipment back to Earth.

Atlantis, as well as the other remaining shuttles, will be retired from service and put on public display.

The White House says that while the mission marks the final flight of the space shuttle program, it ushers in an exciting new frontier. In a call to astronauts last week, President Barack Obama said the new era will push the frontiers of space exploration and human space flight even further, with the eventual goal of “ultimately sending humans to Mars.”

Although NASA has long-range plans to use heavy lift rockets to send astronauts to an asteroid and eventually to Mars, the U.S. space agency will have no means to put people into space for the next several years.

Vehicles that can be used to ferry astronauts to low-earth orbit and the International Space Station are being developed by private companies. But until one of them is ready, NASA will send astronauts up on Russian rockets.