- Associated Press - Thursday, July 21, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Space shuttle Atlantis is zooming back to Earth for the very last landing of the 30-year program.

Perfect weather awaits Atlantis and its four-person crew in Florida.

The astronauts fired the braking rockets early Thursday morning. Touchdown is scheduled for 5:56 a.m., a little before dawn. A big crowd has gathered near NASA’s landing strip to watch history unfold.

NASA is ending its shuttle program with Atlantis’ successful space station resupply mission. Atlantis blasted into orbit July 8. It’s landing on the 50th anniversary of Gus Grissom’s suborbital flight.

This will be a true homecoming for Atlantis. The next-to-youngest shuttle will remain at Kennedy Space Center and be put on display.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Perfect weather awaited space shuttle Atlantis on Thursday for the very last landing of the 30-year program.

Atlantis’ four astronauts shut the payload bay doors in the wee hours of the morning. That set them on a course toward an on-time touchdown at 5:56 a.m., just before dawn.

Commander Christopher Ferguson told Mission Control that this really was it.

NASA is ending its shuttle program with Atlantis’ successful space station resupply mission. It is the 135th flight in shuttle history. This grand finale comes 50 years to the day that Gus Grissom became the second American in space, aboard Liberty Bell 7.

A record crowd of 2,000 was expected at NASA’s landing strip to welcome Atlantis home.

It was to be a true homecoming for Atlantis, which first soared in 1985. The next-to-youngest in NASA’s fleet will remain at Kennedy Space Center as a museum display.

Atlantis _ the last of NASA’s three surviving shuttles to retire _ performed admirably during the 13-day flight.

It dropped off a full year’s worth of food and other supplies at the International Space Station, just in case upcoming deliveries get delayed.

The space station’s international partners _ Russia, Europe and Japan _ will continue to carry up cargo loads. And Russia will keep launching American astronauts to the orbiting lab until private industry is ready to fly people up in three to five years.

Several private companies are vying for the cargo runs and astronaut ferry flights. The front-runner hopes to make its first shipment of supplies by the end of this year.

A U.S. flag that flew on the first shuttle flight in 1981 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.

___

Online:

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

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