Video: Endeavour makes its final landing

  1. Closed captioning of: Endeavour makes its final landing

    >> safely this morning wrapping up its final mission of a nearly 20-year career. as it returned to earth, nasa rolled out the shuttle "atlantis" set to launch on july 8th . after "endeavour's" 122 million miles in flight, shuttle commander mark kelly said, it's sad to see her land for the last time, but she has a great legacy.

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updated 6/1/2011 9:34:01 PM ET 2011-06-02T01:34:01

The space shuttle Endeavour and its six astronauts returned to Earth early Wednesday, closing out the next-to-last mission in NASA's 30-year program with a safe middle-of-the-night landing.

Endeavour glided down onto the runway one final time under the cover of darkness, just as Atlantis, the last shuttle bound for space, arrived at the launch pad for the grand finale in five weeks.

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Commander Mark Kelly — whose wife, wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, remained behind at her rehab center in Houston — brought Endeavour to a stop before hundreds of onlookers that included the four Atlantis astronauts who will take flight in July. He waited hours before calling her, so he wouldn't wake her up.

Endeavour, the youngest of the shuttles with 123 million miles (198 million kilometers) over 25 flights, is now bound for a museum in California, shipping out early next year.

"Your landing ends a vibrant legacy for this amazing vehicle that will long be remembered," Mission Control told Kelly and his crewmates, who wrapped up U.S. construction at the International Space Station during the mission.

"It's sad to see her land for the last time," Kelly replied, "but she really has a great legacy."

Bright lights at night
Thousands jammed Kennedy Space Center a few hours earlier to see Atlantis make its way to the launch pad, the last such trek ever by a shuttle. Employees and their families lined the route Tuesday night as Atlantis crept out of the Vehicle Assembly Building a little after sunset, bathed in xenon lights.

"The show pretty much tells itself," Atlantis' commander, Christopher Ferguson, said as he waved toward his ship. "We're going to look upon this final mission as a celebration of all that the space shuttle has accomplished over its 30-year life span."

Bright lights also illuminated the landing strip for Kelly, who made the 25th night landing out of a total of 134 shuttle flights.

The Endeavour astronauts — all experienced spacemen — departed the 220-mile-high (354-kilometer-high) orbiting outpost over the weekend. They installed a $2 billion cosmic ray detector, an extension beam and a platform full of spare parts, enough to keep the station operating in the shuttle-less decade ahead.

Their flight lasted 16 days and completed NASA's role in the space station construction effort that began more than 12 years ago.

Image: Space shuttle Endeavour lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral
Joe Skipper  /  Reuters
Space shuttle Endeavour lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Wednesday.

The official tally for Endeavour, after 19 years of flight, was 170 crew members, 299 days in space, 4,671 orbits of Earth and 122,883,151 miles (197,752,094 kilometers).

Kelly was the last astronaut to exit Endeavour. He and his crew posed for pictures and signed autographs on the runway. Astronaut Gregory Chamitoff was so wobbly from weightlessness that he had to be supported by two colleagues, but he was determined to join in the event.

As Kelly thanked his crewmates live on NASA TV for their flawless performance, co-pilot Gregory Johnson leaned over to shout into the mike, "And our commander, we want to thank him, too." Johnson and the rest of the crew were openly supportive, over the months, about Kelly's decision to stick with the flight, despite his wife's serious injury.

Giffords was shot in the head during a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in January, but made a remarkable recovery and was able to attend the May 16 launch. The congresswoman did not travel to Florida for the landing because of the inconvenient hour, but Kelly's two teenage daughters were on hand, along with his twin brother, Scott, also an astronaut.

Six hours after the 2:35 a.m. ET touchdown, Kelly had yet to call Giffords. He didn't want to wake her in her hospital room. He told his mother-in-law in a post-landing e-mail that he'd call the congresswoman following the morning news conference.

"What I'm going to say to her?" he said in response to a reporter's question. "Really miss her and can't wait to get back there tomorrow to see her."

The astronauts will return to Houston on Thursday for a big welcome-home ceremony.

Heading for California
Endeavour, the second space shuttle to be retired, will head to the California Science Center in Los Angeles after months of decommissioning.

Built to replace the destroyed Challenger, Endeavour first soared in 1992 on a satellite-rescue mission that saw a record-setting three spacewalkers grab the wayward craft. Other highlights for the baby of the shuttle fleet: the first repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, to fix its blurred vision, and NASA's first flight to assemble the space station in 1998.

Its final journey featured four spacewalks, the last ones to be conducted by a shuttle crew. One of the spacewalking astronauts, Mike Fincke, set a U.S. career record of 382 days in space.

The flight also marked the first departure of a Russian Soyuz capsule during a shuttle visit to the space station, and the first call to space by a pope. Two Italians were aboard the shuttle-station complex when Pope Benedict XVI phoned from the Vatican on May 21.

Launch managers marveled Wednesday over how good Endeavour still looks.

"It looks like it's ready to go do another mission," Kelly noted. He said he'd fly the space shuttle every couple months if he could — heck, every week if possible. "But it's 30 years old ... and we've got to grow and adapt and build new things."

Atlantis will remain at Kennedy Space Center as a tourist stop, following one last supply run to the space station. Liftoff is set for July 8.

Discovery, the fleet leader, returned from its final voyage in March. Its next stop is a Smithsonian Institution hangar outside Washington.

Moving Atlantis to the launch pad as Endeavour landed helped temper the sadness so many are feeling with one mission remaining, officials said. Thousands of more layoffs loom once the shuttle program ends.

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"It's been a heck of a month in the last four hours," observed launch manager Mike Moses, "and I think we've used up our overtime budget for the entire month."

NASA is leaving the Earth-to-orbit business behind to focus on expeditions to asteroids and Mars. Private companies hope to pick up the slack for cargo and crew hauls to the space station. But it will be a while following Atlantis' upcoming flight — at least three years by one business' estimate, five to seven years by Kelly's — before astronauts ride on American rockets again.

Until then, Americans will continue hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz capsules at the cost of tens of millions of dollars a seat.

"We're in the process of transition now, and it's going to be awkward," Atlantis astronaut Rex Walheim said. "But we'll get to the other side and we'll have new vehicles.

"I really do have to say, though, it's going to be really hard to beat a vehicle that is so beautiful and majestic as that one is," he said as Atlantis rolled to the pad behind him. "I mean, how can you beat that? An airplane sitting on the side of a rocket. It's absolutely stunning."

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Interactive: Endeavor's final mission

  1. Above: Interactive Endeavor's final mission
  2. Timeline Space shuttle timeline

Photos: The life of space shuttle Endeavour

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  1. Special delivery

    Endeavour was the last space shuttle to join NASA's fleet: It was built to replace the shuttle Challenger, which was lost in an explosion shortly after launch in 1986. This view shows Endeavour perched atop a modified Boeing 747 on May 2, 1991, beginning the ferry flight from Palmdale, Calif. - where the shuttle was built - to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First liftoff

    Endeavour lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 7, 1992, beginning its first mission. The STS-49 mission's primary task was the repair of the Intelsat VI telecommunications satellite. Endeavour was the only shuttle to make its maiden flight from Pad 39B. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grab that satellite!

    Endeavour astronauts Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot hold onto the 4.5-ton Intelsat VI satellite after making a six-handed "capture" on May 13, 1992. The satellite failed to rise above low Earth orbit when it was launched in 1990. During Endeavour's maiden mission, astronauts retrieved the satellite, attached it to a new upper-stage booster and relaunched it to its intended geosynchronous orbit. This mission marked the first time that three people from the same spacecraft walked in space at the same time. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Science in space

    Endeavour astronauts Jan Davis, left, and Mae Jemison prepare to deploy the lower body negative pressure apparatus on Sept. 15, 1992. Scientific research was the main focus of this Spacelab-J mission, also known as STS-47. The mission's crew included the first African-American woman to fly in space (Mae Jemison) and the only husband-and-wife team to go into space together (Jan Davis and Mark Lee). (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fixing Hubble

    Astronauts flew on Endeavour to take on the first Hubble servicing mission in December 1993. In this picture, spacewalkers Story Musgrave and Jeffrey Hoffman perform an orbital ballet. The coastline of western Australia is visible below. The complex and highly successful repair mission allowed Hubble, which was launched with a defective mirror, to see into the universe with unprecedented clarity. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Building the station

    Endeavour spacewalker Jim Newman holds onto the International Space Station's Unity connecting module as he removes covers and works on connecting cables on Dec. 7, 1998. The STS-88 flight marked the shuttle fleet's first space station assembly mission. (AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Erroneous endeavor

    The shuttle Endeavour sits on its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 11, 2007. "Endeavor" is spelled incorrectly on the banner. The shuttle was named after the HMS Endeavour, the British sailing ship that carried Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771. That's why Endeavour reflects the British spelling of the word. (Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spacewalkers at work

    During the first spacewalk of the STS-118 mission, on Aug. 11, 2007, astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Canada's Dave Williams (out of frame) attach a new segment of the International Space Station's truss and retract a collapsible radiator. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Class portrait

    The crew members of Endeavour's STS-118 crew pose for their official portrait on Aug. 8, 2007. From left are Rick Mastracchio, Barbara Morgan, pilot Charles Hobaugh, mission commander Scott Kelly, Tracy Caldwell, Canadian astronaut Dave Williams and Alvin Drew. During this flight, Morgan became the first educator astronaut to go into orbit. In 1986, she was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who died in the Challenger explosion. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great view

    Endeavour spacewalker Rick Mastracchio relocates communications equipment on the International Space Station during an outing on Aug. 15, 2007. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A gouge in the tiles

    Tiles on the underside of the space shuttle Endeavour show evidence of damage in a photo taken on Aug. 12, 2007, using the shuttle's robotic arm and a camera-tipped extension boom. The close-up imagery helped mission managers determine that the gouge would pose no threat during Endeavour's atmospheric re-entry. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Eye of the hurricane

    Crew members aboard the shuttle Endeavour captured this picture of Hurricane Dean's eye in the Caribbean on Aug. 18, 2007. The STS-118 mission ended on Aug. 21, one day earlier than planned, to avoid potential complications due to the storm. Forecasters worried that Hurricane Dean could have swept over Houston around the time of landing - but in the end, the storm took a different course. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In control

    NASA Administrator Michael Griffin watches the liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavour from the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 14, 2008. The STS-126 mission delivered two spare bedrooms as well as a second kitchen and bathroom to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Repairs at the pad

    Workers perform repairs on the shuttle Endeavour's external fuel tank at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on June 14, 2009. The launch team detected a leak of hydrogen fuel from the tank, forcing a delay in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. The mission's main task was the delivery of the final segment of Japan's Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station. (Tim Jacobs / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lightning strikes

    A giant bolt of lightning hits Endeavour's Florida launch pad on July 10, 2009. Technical problems and severe weather forced five delays in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. (Gene Blevins / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Liftoff at last!

    The space shuttle Endeavour rises from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on July 15, 2009, on the STS-127 mission's sixth launch attempt. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Parting glance

    The space shuttle Endeavour is photographed from the International Space Station soon after its departure on July 28, 2009. A Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station is visible in the foreground. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Twilight of the shuttle

    The shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against different layers of the sunlit atmosphere during its approach to the International Space Station on Feb. 9, 2010. The primary payloads for Endeavour's STS-130 mission were the Tranquility module and the Cupola observation deck and control station. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Check out this view!

    Astronaut George Zamka, Endeavour's commander for the STS-130 mission, peeks out a window of the International Space Station's newly installed Cupola observation deck on Feb. 19, 2010. The Cupola provides an unparalleled view of Earth below. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Tanks for the memories

    The external fuel tank for Endeavour's final mission, STS-134, is transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 14, 2010. STS-134's main payload is the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an international physics experiment. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The view from above

    The space shuttle Endeavour is lowered into place for attachment to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 1, 2011. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Greeting the day

    The sun rises as photographers gather on a hill to take pictures shortly after the shuttle Endeavour's arrival at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on March 11, 2011. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Into the clouds

    Photographers track the space shuttle Endeavour's ascent as it pierces the clouds and disappears after launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. (Craig Rubadoux / Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Godspeed, Endeavour!

    Spectators react as the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the start of the next-to-last space shuttle flight. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Above the clouds

    Stefanie Gordon captured this remarkable picture of the space shuttle Endeavour rising above Florida's cloud cover on May 16 while she was on a commercial flight from New York to Palm Beach, Fla. (Stefanie Gordon / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The last spacewalk

    NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff holds a handrail during the fourth and last spacewalk conducted by the shuttle Endeavour's crew at the International Space Station on May 27. Chamitoff and astronaut Michael Fincke (visible in the reflections from Chamitoff's helmet visor) transferred an inspection boom system, completing U.S. assembly of the station. The May 27 outing marked the last scheduled spacewalk to be conducted by a space shuttle crew. (Nasa T.V. via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Night passage

    Backdropped by a nighttime view of Earth and the starry sky, the space shuttle Endeavour is seen docked to the International Space Station on May 28. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Landing in the dark

    The space shuttle Endeavour lands for the last time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1, 2011. The touchdown capped Endeavour's 16-day mission to deliver a $2 billion science experiment to the International Space Station on NASA's next-to-last shuttle flight. (Joe Skipper / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Blastoff into history

    A NASA poster pays tribute to Endeavour and its space missions over the past two decades. The shuttle is shown rising to orbit, with patches for each of its missions laid out in a spiral. The HMS Endeavour, which inspired the spaceship's name, is shown at lower right. At upper left, pictures of Endeavour are framed in the windows of the Cupola. The background image depicts the nebula NGC 602 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was first serviced by Endeavour in 1993. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (29) Shuttle Endeavour, this is your life
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    Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close

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