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.
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.
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."