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.
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.
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.
"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."