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It’s working with private companies eager to take over cargo runs and astronaut flights to the space station. The first supply trip is expected to take place by the end of this year. Astronaut trips will take more time to put together, at least three to five years.

The long-term destination is true outer space: sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars the following decade. That’s the plan put forth by President Barack Obama. His predecessor wanted moon as the prize.

Throughout their 13-day mission and again Wednesday, the Atlantis astronauts stressed the need for a decades-long space exploration plan that does not change with each incoming president.

Ceccacci, whose Mission Control experience dates back to the first shuttle flight in 1981, said it’s “tough” to think about all the experience that will be walking out the door following this mission. Thousands of layoffs are looming at the various NASA centers; about 2,000 shuttle workers at Kennedy alone will get pink slips starting Friday. That’s on top of massive cutbacks already made.

“We know there’s going to be a rough spot for a while,” Ceccacci said. “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.”

Ceccacci plans to read a speech to his Houston flight control team, once Atlantis and its crew are safely back on Earth, but there will be none of the flag-waving, cigar-smoking celebrations seen during the moon-landing days. Smoking is no longer permitted in the control center, he reminded journalists.

Rather, Ceccacci said he will gather flight controllers around to watch Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus walk around the last shuttle one last time on the runway _ so the controllers can “soak it in … and congratulate each other on a job well done.”

Atlantis is the last of the shuttles to be retired. It will remain at Kennedy Space Center, eventually going on public display at the visitors complex. Discovery is bound for the Smithsonian Institution in suburban Washington, and Endeavour for the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/shuttle