Cape Canaveral, Fla.: The space shuttle Atlantis glided home through a clear moonlit sky on Thursday to complete a 13-day cargo run to the International Space Station and a 30-year odyssey for NASA’s shuttle program.
Commander Chris Ferguson gently steered the 100-ton spaceship high overhead, then nose-dived toward the swamp-surrounded landing strip at the Kennedy Space Center, a few miles (km) from where Atlantis will go on display as a museum piece.
Double sonic booms shattered the predawn silence around the space center, the last time residents will hear the sound of a shuttle coming home.
Ferguson eased Atlantis onto the runway at 5:57 a.m. EDT (0957 GMT), ending a 5.2 million-mile (8.4 million-km) journey and closing a key chapter in human space flight history.
“Mission complete, Houston,” Ferguson radioed to Mission Control.
Astronaut Barry Wilmore from Mission Control answered back, “We’ll take this opportunity to congratulate you Atlantis, as well as the thousands of passionate individuals across this great space-faring nation who truly empowered this incredible spacecraft, which for three decades has inspired millions around the globe.”
Atlantis’ return from the 135th shuttle mission capped a 30-year program that made spaceflight appear routine, despite two fatal accidents that killed 14 astronauts and destroyed two of NASA’s five spaceships.
The last accident investigation board recommended the shuttles be retired after construction was finished on the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations. That milestone was reached this year.
Details of a follow-on program are still pending, but the overall objective is to build new spaceships that can travel beyond the station’s 250-mile (400-km) orbit and send astronauts to the moon, asteroids and other destinations in deep space.