Continued from page 2

NASA is sacrificing the shuttles, according to the program manager, so it can get out of low-Earth orbit and get to points beyond. The first stop under Obama’s plan is an asteroid by 2025; next comes Mars in the mid-2030s.

Private companies have been tapped to take over cargo hauls and astronaut rides to the space station, which is expected to carry on for at least another decade. The first commercial supply run is expected late this year, with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launching its own rocket and spacecraft from Cape Canaveral.

None of these private spacecraft, however, will have the hauling capability of NASA’s shuttles; their payload bays stretch 60 feet long and 15 feet across, and hoisted megaton observatories like Hubble. Much of the nearly 1 million pounds of space station was carried to orbit by space shuttles.

Astronaut trips by the commercial competitors will take years to achieve.

SpaceX maintains it can get people to the space station within three years of getting the all-clear from NASA. Station managers expect it to be more like five years. Some skeptics say it could be 10 years before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil.

An American flag that flew on the first shuttle flight and returned to orbit aboard Atlantis, is now at the space station. The first company to get astronauts there will claim the flag as a prize.

Until then, NASA astronauts will continue to hitch rides to the space station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft _ for tens of millions of dollars per seat.

The space station, orbiting nearly 250 miles up, was visible from the launch site just before Atlantis returned. NASA’s challenge, said space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier, is “how do you make that little white dot real, that’s as exciting as a launch … or the landing that you saw nine minutes later?”

Thousands of layoffs are coming as early as Friday _ on top of thousands of shuttle jobs already lost. As a thank you, NASA parked Atlantis outside its hangar, so workers could gather round and say goodbye to one another.

Hundreds stood in the midday heat, waving U.S. flags and paper fans, and photographing the shuttle.

Angie Buffaloe shed tears; three colleagues in her engineering office lose their jobs Friday.

“I spend more time with these guys than I do with my family,” Buffaloe, a 22-year space center worker, said at the gathering. “We’ve been through everything: divorce, sick children, grandchildren. They’ve been there. We’ve shared life together … and now their last day is today.”

After months of decommissioning, Atlantis will be placed on public display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex; its debut is targeted for summer 2013. Discovery, the first to retire in March, will head to a Smithsonian hangar in Virginia. Endeavour, which returned from the space station on June 1, will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Ferguson said the space shuttles will long continue to inspire.

“I want that picture of a young 6-year-old boy looking up at a space shuttle in a museum and saying, ‘Daddy, I want to do something like that when I grow up.’ “

Story Continues →