Space shuttle Atlantis home to end Nasa golden era
Atlantis and four astronauts has returned from the International Space Station in triumph, 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 Kennedy Space Centre and countless others watched from afar as Nasa's longest-running spaceflight programme 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," commander Christopher Ferguson radioed after a ghostlike Atlantis glided through the twilight.
"Job well done, America," replied Mission Control.
With the space shuttles retiring to museums, it will be another three to five years, at best, before Americans are launched again from US soil, as private companies gear 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.
Yesterday, though, belonged to Atlantis and its crew: Cdr Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, who completed a successful space station resupply mission.
Atlantis touched down at 0557am EDT (10.57 BST), with "wheels stop" a minute later. "The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it's changed the way we view our universe," Cdr Ferguson radioed from Atlantis.
"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 programme to such a fitting end."
Atlantis was greeted with cheers, whistles and shouts from the astronauts' families and friends, as well as shuttle managers and Nasa brass, who had gathered near the runway.
Within an hour, Ferguson and his crew were out on the runway and swarmed by well-wishers.
"The things that we've done have set us up for exploration of the future," said Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden Jr, a former shuttle commander. "But I don't want to talk about that right now. I just want to salute this crew, welcome them home."
Nine-hundred miles away, flight director Tony Ceccacci, who presided over Atlantis' safe return, choked up while signing off from shuttle Mission Control in Houston.
"The work done in this room, in this building, will never again be duplicated," he told his team of flight controllers.
At those words, dozens of past and present flight controllers quickly streamed into the room, embracing one another, wiping their eyes and snapping pictures. Born with Columbia in 1981, the shuttle was Nasa's longest-running space exploration program.
The five shuttles launched, saved and revitalised the Hubble Space Telescope; built the space station, the world's largest orbiting structure; and opened the final frontier to women, minorities, schoolteachers, even a prince.
The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, became the oldest person ever in space, thanks to the shuttle. He was 77 at the time; he turned 90 this week.
This was the 135th mission for the space shuttle fleet, which altogether flew 542 million miles and circled Earth more than 21,150 times over the past three decades. The five shuttles carried 355 people from 16 countries and, altogether, spent 1,333 days in space - almost four years.
Two of the shuttles - Challenger and Columbia - were destroyed, one at launch, the other during the ride home. Fourteen lives were lost.
The decision to cease shuttle flights was made seven years ago, barely a year after the Columbia tragedy. President Barack Obama nixed President George W. Bush's lunar goals, however, opting instead for astronaut expeditions to an asteroid and Mars.