Space shuttle Atlantis made its final touchdown to a record crowd of 2,000 at the Kennedy Space Center today.
Atlantis’ return from the International Space Station brings to an end NASA’s longest-running spaceflight programme. Two thousand people gathered near the landing strip to watch the final touchdown, thousands more packed Kennedy Space Center and countless others watched from afar.
“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.
Atlantis, and its crew - Cdr Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus – touched down at 5.57am EDT, with “wheels stop” less than a minute later. They were 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.
“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.
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.
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.
It was truly a homecoming for Atlantis, which first soared in 1985. The next-to-youngest in NASA’s fleet will remain at Kennedy Space Centre as a museum display.
This grand finale came 50 years to the day that Gus Grissom became the second American in space, just a half-year ahead of Glenn.
Atlantis - the last of Nasa’s three surviving shuttles to retire - performed as admirably during descent as it did throughout the 13-day flight. A full year’s worth of food and other supplies were dropped off at the space station, just in case the upcoming commercial deliveries get delayed. The international partners - Russia, Europe, Japan - will carry the load in the meantime.
It 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 flight 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.
Last-ditch appeals to keep shuttles flying by such NASA legends as Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Mission Control founder Christopher Kraft landed flat.