- Associated Press - Thursday, July 21, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Atlantis and four astronauts returned from the International Space Station in triumph Thursday, bringing an end to NASA’s 30-year shuttle journey with one last, rousing touchdown that drew cheers and tears.

A record crowd of 2,000 gathered near the landing strip, thousands more packed Kennedy Space Center and countless others watched from afar as NASA’s longest-running spaceflight program came to a close.

“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,” commander Christopher Ferguson radioed after Atlantis glided through the ghostly twilight and landed on the runway.

“Job well done, America,” replied Mission Control.

With the shuttle’s end, it will be another three to five years at best before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil, with private companies gearing up to seize the Earth-to-orbit-and-back baton from NASA.

The long-term future for American space exploration is just as hazy, a huge concern for many at NASA and all those losing their jobs because of the shuttle’s end. Asteroids and Mars are the destinations of choice, yet NASA has yet to settle on a rocket design to get astronauts there.

Thursday, though, belonged to Atlantis and its crew: Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, who completed a successful space station resupply mission.

Atlantis’ main landing gears touched down at 5:57 a.m. sharp, with “wheels stop” less than a minute later.

“The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it’s changed the way we view our universe,” Ferguson radioed from Atlantis. “There’s a lot of emotion today, but one thing’s indisputable. America’s not going to stop exploring.

“Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end.”

The astronauts’ families and friends, as well as shuttle managers and NASA brass, were near the runway to welcome Atlantis home. Difficult to see in the darkness, Atlantis was greeted with cheers, whistles and shouts. Soon, the sun was up and provided, finally, a splendid view. Within an hour, Ferguson and his crew were out on the runway and swarmed by well-wishers.

“The things that we’ve done have set us up for exploration of the future,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., a former shuttle commander. “But I don’t want to talk about that right now. I just want to salute this crew, welcome them home.”

Nine-hundred miles away, flight director Tony Ceccacci, who presided over Atlantis’ safe return, choked up while signing off from shuttle Mission Control in Houston.

“The work done in this room, in this building, will never again be duplicated,” he told his team of flight controllers.

At those words, dozens of past and present flight controllers quickly streamed into the room, embracing one another, wiping their eyes and snapping pictures.

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