Thursday, July 21, 2011

Space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth, marks end of NASA's 30-year program

Atlantis and its four astronauts glided through the twilight Thursday and landed in Florida shortly before sunrise.

Atlantis and its four astronauts glided through the twilight Thursday and landed in Florida shortly before sunrise.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the last time Thursday, marking the end of the storied shuttle program and closing the book on an era of space travel.

The landing at Cape Canaveral in Florida leaves a question mark over the future of NASA, as the U.S. government looks to private companies to take command of future missions.

"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," said commander Christopher Ferguson as he piloted the Atlantis onto the tarmac at dawn.

 "Job well done America," replied Mission Control.

It will take three  to five more years before the U.S. launches the next generation of manned space rockets.

Asteroids and Mars are the destinations of choice.

 "America's not going to stop exploring,"Ferguson vowed.

A record crowd of 2,000 people gathered to watch the shuttle's final mission come to a close, joining hundreds of NASA workers in a moving farewell.

"I haven't cried yet, but it is extremely emotional," said Karl Ronstrom, a photographer who witnessed the first shuttle launch as a teenager in 1981.

Since then, NASA's five shuttles completed 135 missions, ferrying 355 people from 16 countries and spent nearly four years in space.

Two orbiters - the Challenger and Columbia - were destroyed in tragic accidents, killing 14.

The program was finally shelved as NASA's focus turns from low-Earth orbit to more distant goals.

"Children who dream of being astronauts today may not fly on the space shuttle ... but one day, they may walk on Mars," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr. "I'm ready to get on with the next big challenge."

Privates companies have already been tapped to take over cargo flights and astronaut rides to the International Space Station, and Russia's space program will remain in operation.

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