The final mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis came to an end early this morning on the Florida coast where it launched 13 days ago, and where the shuttle program got its start more than 30 years ago.
When its wheels touched down this morning at the Kennedy Space Center, Atlantis brought to a close the current era of manned space flight for the United States.
Following the landing, mission commander Christopher Ferguson joined NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at the landing site for a ceremony marking the end of the shuttle program.
About an hour after the landing, the shuttle entry flight director Tony Ceccacci made brief remarks at the Johnson Space Center. He congratulated the NASA team and the astronauts for all their hard work. Following his remarks, large crowds formed in the Johnson Space Center control room hugging, shaking hands and taking pictures.
Later, at the post-landing news conference questions ranged from future programs to the emotional impact of the Space Shuttle’s final landing. Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach talked about his team's emotions during the final landing of Atlantis. He said, “I saw grown men and women crying today, human emotions came out today, and you couldn’t suppress them.”
During its mission, Atlantis docked with the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver a module containing 8,640 pounds of supplies and spare parts.
ISS engineers also took a 6 hour spacewalk to investigate the potential for robotically refueling existing spacecraft and replace a failed ammonia pump module.
Atlantis is the last of the shuttles to be retired. It will eventually go on public display at the Kennedy Space Center. Discovery will go to the National Air & Space Museum in suburban Washington, and Endeavor will be on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
With no definitive plan for a new launch vehicle, American astronauts will be limited to flights on foreign spacecraft, and most cargo will be sent into space in rockets provided by government contractors.
The end of the shuttle program brings rising unemployment to the area around the Kennedy Space Center. Reuters estimates the shuttle workforce hit a high of about 18,000 in the early 1990s, but will dwindle to only about 1,000 workers on the shuttle program payroll by the end of August 2011.