Video: End of an era: Final space shuttle lands

By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/21/2011 12:19:37 PM ET 2011-07-21T16:19:37

The shuttle Atlantis touched down before dawn on Thursday, marking the sunset of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program.

Landing came at 5:57 a.m. ET, less than an hour before sunrise at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the last operating space shuttle will make its home in retirement.

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Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said the shuttle's final touchdown would be emotional, and he was true to his word. "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 said.

"Job well done, America," Mission Control communicator Barry Wilmore replied.

Ferguson went on to say that the shuttle program "has changed the way we view the world, and it's changed the way we view our universe."

"There are a lot of emotions today, but one things indisputable: America's not going to stop exploring," he vowed.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden voiced a similar sentiment in remarks released after the landing: "This final shuttle flight marks the end of an era, but today, we recommit ourselves to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary — and difficult — steps to ensure America's leadership in human spaceflight for years to come."

Hundreds turned out at Kennedy Space Center to witness the last-ever landing of a space shuttle. An estimated 4,000 shuttle program workers, many of whom will be losing their jobs due to the fleet's retirement, gathered to watch TV coverage at Johnson Space Center in Texas. Inside Mission Control, team members and VIPs shook hands, hugged and took pictures of each other to document the occasion.

"Right now, at this moment, it's a celebratory mood," shuttle systems instructor Michael Grabois said via telephone from Mission Control. "We all know it's the end of the program ... but we're all here to savor the moment."

Grabois is due to be laid off next month.

NASA and the White House decided years ago, in the wake of the shuttle Columbia's tragic breakup in 2003, to retire the space shuttle fleet once it finished its work on the International Space Station. At the time, the plan called for NASA to shift its attention to sending astronauts to the moon. Since then, the Obama administration has revised NASA's vision to focus on asteroids and Mars rather than the moon, but the plan for retirement remained.

Thursday was the day that the retirement plan took full effect.

Last visit to space station
During Atlantis' 13-day mission, astronauts delivered enough supplies to keep the space station going through the end of 2012, dropped off an experiment aimed at testing NASA's robotic capability to refuel satellites in orbit, loaded up a broken coolant pump module and deployed an experimental mini-satellite. Its cargo included thousands of flags and patches — souvenirs to be distributed when the shuttle era goes into the history books.

"It felt like about a two-month mission crammed into 13 days," pilot Doug Hurley said.

The job was made more challenging by the fact that Atlantis' quartet — Ferguson, Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim — made up the smallest shuttle crew since 1983. That was because walif anything went wrong with Atlantis during its trip, NASA would have had to rely on a series of Russian Soyuz capsules to rescue the astronauts over the course of nearly a year.

Fortunately, nothing went wrong. Except for a launch-pad hiccup at T-minus-31 seconds and a couple of computer problems, Atlantis' mission ranked as one of the shuttle fleet's smoothest space journeys ever. That good fortune continued on Thursday. During the descent, Atlantis "performed absolutely wonderfully — not a glitch," Ferguson said.

Red-white-and-blue sentiment
The crew was awakened for the final day by the strains of "God Bless America," as sung by the legendary Kate Smith. Mission communicator Shannon Lucid told Ferguson that the tune was played "for the entire crew and for all the men and women who have put their heart and soul into the shuttle program for all these years."

"What a classic patriotic song," Ferguson said. "So appropriate for what will likely be the shuttle's final day in orbit. .... Thank you to America for supporting this program."

The 26-year-old Atlantis finished its 33rd and last space mission with 5,284,862 miles on its trip meter, adding up to a total flown distance of 125,935,769 miles. The space shuttle fleet has flown 135 missions in all, rolling up more than 542 million miles of flight.

Among the shuttle program's top achievements are the orbital deployment of 180 spacecraft, including the Magellan probe to Venus, the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Hubble Space Telescope; repair missions that saved Hubble from the trash bin of space history; and the 12-year construction effort leading to the completion of the International Space Station.

Entry flight director Tony Ceccacci celebrated the shuttle program's legacy in closing remarks to his team at Mission Control in Houston: "I believe that the accomplishments of the shuttle program will become the next set of shoulders of giants for the future programs to stand on. Hold your heads up with pride as we close out the space shuttle program. You have earned it."

The sentiment was similarly strong at Kennedy Space Center. "I saw grown men and grown women crying today — tears of joy, to be sure," launch director Mike Leinbach told reporters. ""Human emotions came out on the runway today. You couldn't suppress them."

Wave of layoffs
The landing was bittersweet, and not just for sentimental reasons: Atlantis' touchdown signals the beginning of a fresh wave of layoffs for the shuttle program, which has already been hard hit by workforce reductions.

About 3,200 shuttle program contractors are getting pink slips soon after landing, NASA program manager John Shannon said last month. By mid-August, only 1,000 contractors will remain to help with the transition to shuttle retirement, he said. About 1,000 NASA civil servants will be shifted to other duties at the space agency.

Atlantis' sister shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour, are already being prepared for museum display. Discovery is to go to the Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum near Washington. Endeavour is destined for the California Science Center in Los Angeles. And Atlantis will be exhibited at Kennedy Space Center's visitors complex.

The prototype shuttle Enterprise, which was used for atmospheric testing but never flew in orbit, will be moved from its display space at the Smithsonian to New York's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, to make room for Discovery.

Fergusoln said he hoped the shuttles would continue to inspire long after their retirement:  "I want that picture of a young 6-year-old boy looking up at a space shuttle in a museum and saying, 'Daddy, I want to do something like that when I grow up,'" he said.

What lies ahead in space
For the next few years, NASA will have to rely on the Russians to ferry astronauts to the space station and back, at a cost of up to $63 million per seat. NASA is also spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support the development of new private-sector spaceships that could carry astronauts starting around 2015.

One of the companies receiving NASA funding, California-based SpaceX, could start taking supplies to the space station by the end of this year. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., is on track to start unmanned cargo trips within the next year or two. Other companies hoping to build spaceships for NASA include Blue Origin, the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp.

Meanwhile, NASA is proceeding with a multibillion-dollar effort to develop a new crew vehicle called Orion and a new heavy-lift rocket currently known as the Space Launch System. The space agency's current timetable calls for sending astronauts beyond Earth orbit, to a near-Earth asteroid by the mid-2020s and to Mars by the mid-2030s. That timetable, however, is heavily dependent on funding levels over the next decade.

Ironically, the end of the shuttle era came 42 years and a day after what was arguably NASA's greatest success: the Apollo 11 moon landing. Thursday also marked exactly 50 years since Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom made America's second spaceflight.

NASA mission managers vowed to keep the spirit of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — and the shuttle program — alive during the coming transitional years.

"We know there's going to be a rough spot for a while," Ceccacci told journalists on the eve of the landing. "But we hope that when we do get a good plan, a good direction, a good mission, that we can come back in here and do what we've been doing for the past 30 years for the shuttle and the years before that with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo."

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Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

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  1. Atlantis rising

    The space shuttle Atlantis makes its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, for the Defense Department's STS-51-J mission. At 176,413 pounds, Atlantis is nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, which was the heaviest shuttle. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 3 pounds less than the shuttle Endeavour (with the three main engines). Atlantis is also the last space shuttle to be retired.

    Other statistics:
    Length: 122.17 feet
    Height: 56.58 feet
    Wingspan: 78.06 feet (Phil Sandlin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First of its kind

    NASA's Magellan spacecraft is deployed from Atlantis' cargo bay in 1989 during the STS-30 mission. The Venus orbiter was the first interplanetary probe launched from a space shuttle. Later that year, Atlantis launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mission to Mir

    NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation during the STS-71 mission in June 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia's Mir space station for the first time. This historic photo of the linked spacecraft was taken from a Russian Soyuz capsule during a fly-around. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Here's looking at you

    The space shuttle Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in September 1996. This dramatic view, looking directly down onto the shuttle stack, was taken from the roof of the 525-foot-tall VAB. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Science in orbit

    Astronaut Shannon Lucid floats through the tunnel that connects Spacelab to Atlantis' cabin on Sept. 24, 1996. The Spacelab module rode in the shuttle's cargo bay and provided more space for scientific experiments. During this STS-79 mission, Atlantis linked up with Russia's Mir space station and brought Lucid back to Earth. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Lighting up the night

    Atlantis streaks into the early morning sky from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 15, 1997, as seen in this long-exposure photo taken from Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Fla. Atlantis' 10-day STS-84 mission featured a docking with Russia's Mir space station and a crew transfer. Atlantis docked with Mir seven times before the space station was deorbited in 2001. (Brian Cleary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Good as new

    The space shuttle Atlantis went back to its assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., for 10 months of refurbishment and upgrades in 1997-1998. This aerial photo shows Atlantis taking a piggyback ride back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 jet on Sept. 1, 1998. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Checking it out

    Atlantis' upgraded cockpit gets a once-over in 1999 from engineers and executives, including Roy Bridges, Kennedy Space Center's director (seated at bottom left), as well as Laural Patrick, Joann Morgan and George Selina. The upgrades made Atlantis the most modern orbiter in the shuttle fleet, with a control system as advanced as those found on commercial jet airliners and military aircraft. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tile tune-up

    Izeal Battle, a worker from United Space Alliance, repairs heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 30, 2004. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Back in business

    Atlantis' astronauts leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board the "Astrovan" for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B on Sept. 8, 2006, while gun-toting guards keep watch. A faulty fuel gauge grounded the shuttle for an extra day, but on Sept. 9 the shuttle lifted off on its STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. It marked Atlantis' first launch since 2002. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff!

    The space shuttle Atlantis rises on a pillar of cloud from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, 2006. Atlantis delivered structural components to the International Space Station during its STS-115 mission, resuming an orbital construction project that was stopped following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mission accomplished

    The clouds of Earth provide a backdrop for Atlantis shortly after its departure from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2006. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Night landing

    Atlantis lands amid darkness at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 21, 2006, bringing the STS-115 space station construction mission to a successful close. (Chris O'Meara / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kicking the tires

    Atlantis crew members Chris Ferguson and Dan Burbank look over their spaceship after landing at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 21, 2006. Ferguson was slated to be Atlantis' commander for NASA's final space shuttle mission. (Pierre Ducharme / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Blaze of glory

    The space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters light up for launch on June 8, 2007, beginning a flight to the International Space Station. This STS-117 mission marked the 250th orbital human spaceflight. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Watching the ascent

    NASA mission managers monitor Atlantis' liftoff from Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16, 2009. During the STS-129 mission, Atlantis delivered a payload platform and vital supplies to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Shuttle skywriting

    Nearly an hour after launch, contrails from the shuttle Atlantis' liftoff float above the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 8, 2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Last visit to Hubble

    Spacewalkers Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld work on the Hubble Space Telescope on May 16, 2009, during Atlantis' STS-125 mission. This marked the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Making a list

    Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino writes notes on a checklist during the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission on May 18, 2009. During this mission, Massimino became the first astronaut to send a Twitter update from orbit: "Launch was awesome!!" (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. First Family meets Atlantis

    NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia beneath the shuttle Atlantis during a tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2011. At the time, Atlantis was being prepared for its final flight. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Final flight

    Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. The shuttle fleet's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, brought supplies to the international space station. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Witnessing history

    Spectators watch the liftoff of Atlantis on its final mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Last rendezvous

    The space shuttle Atlantis docks with the International Space Station for the last time on July 10, 2011. The shuttle delivered more than four tons of food, clothes and other supplies to keep the space station going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned at least through the end of 2012. (NASA TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flight into history

    This poster pays tribute to the shuttle Atlantis' quarter-century of spaceflight: Graphic elements include the International Space Station and Russia's Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope (which Atlantis visited during the last servicing mission) and Venus and Jupiter (which were the destinations for probes launched from Atlantis). Threaded through the design are the mission patches for each of Atlantis' flights. A copy of this tribute poster hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Amy Lombardo / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre. 'After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It's come to a final stop,' Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied. (Nasa / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz, left, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land on July 21, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 21, 2011. The Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  2. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close

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