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Once control was given to Florida, the doors to Mission Control opened up and the sparsely populated room filled with scores of back room flight controllers, former NASA engineers and top managers. More hugs followed. One woman was seen wiping her eyes. A chocolate iced cake with a large Atlantis on top of it was wheeled out. One flight controller’s tie was even cut in a NASA tradition.

Cigars were tossed about the room. None were smoked because it’s a no smoking room.

Mark Shelton of the Dallas area who has sent roses to Mission Control since 1988 came down with a large bouquet of white roses.

Norm Knight, who heads all the shuttle flight directors, kept giving the thumbs-up to his family in the viewing area. Up in that room, children played and a toddler watched from his mother’s lap. On the giant television screen in the front of the room, patches from previous missions of Atlantis were displayed.

Ceccacci, who smiled and laughed and kept rolling a pen between his hands, soon separated himself from the throng that was now well beyond standing room only. He found his cloth bag and put his flight director headset away. While the hugging continued, he put away his briefing books and logged off his computer.

Each flight control office has its own toys as symbols. The team that plans crew activities keeps a large hourglass next to a shuttle model. On Thursday, the time in the hourglass had run out.

In Florida, it was different. The tears flowed. Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach describing the scene at the landing strip said, “I saw grown men and grown women crying today.” He said they were tears of joy and “you couldn’t suppress them.”

At Johnson Space Center, Tammy Gafka, a NASA structural engineer, could have been at the Mission Control building, but chose to watch the landing with her husband and four small children at a viewing center set up by NASA on a grassy field on the space center’s campus. A jumbo TV screen stood on top of a truck, memorabilia was given away and astronauts signed autographs. Lines formed where workers and their families could touch a moon rock and pose in a spacesuit.

Gafka and family had driven to Florida to watch Atlantis launch and decided to watch the landing together in the pre-dawn darkness, spread out on a blanket decorated with moon emblems.

“We just didn’t want to regret not being here,” she said. “It’s kind of weird. It’s like grief. It goes in waves.”


Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Fla., contributed to this report.