Shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL (RNN) - With a double sonic boom over the Florida peninsula early Thursday morning, the space shuttle Atlantis re-entered Earth's atmosphere, marking the end to America's 30-year shuttle program.

The last orbiter in the shuttle fleet came to a halt on the runway of Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, FL, at 5:57 a.m., ending a 13-day supply mission to the International Space Station, or ISS.

"There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing is undisputable, America's not going to stop exploring," Commander of STS-135 Chris Ferguson said after the final landing. "Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship Atlantis."

The birth of the shuttle

Only four years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepped on the moon, Congress grew tired of funding America's continued conquest of the moon. Budgets were cut and the Apollo program was canceled.

NASA began looking for a reusable, less-costly spacecraft to continue space exploration. The space shuttle was born.

The idea: Launch like a rocket, land like a plane.

Nearly 10 years passed from the last lunar launch to the first test launch of the space shuttle, but on April 12, 1981, the two-man crew of NASA's first shuttle, Columbia, launched from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, completed 37 orbits, then glided back to Earth, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

A total of four operational orbiters - Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis - were manufactured for the program. A fifth, Endeavour, was added to the fleet following the explosion of the orbiter Challenger during takeoff in 1986.

[Meet the shuttle fleet]

Tragedy struck the fleet again in 2005 when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The latter part of the 30-year shuttle program focused heavily on engineering rather than space exploration, with the program performing repairs of the Hubble telescope and constructing the International Space Station.

[Read more about America's space vehicles]

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised Atlantis' crew for an exemplary performance after the shuttle landed.

Although STS-135 marks the end of the shuttle program, Bolden said it's not the end for the nation's exploration of space.

"This final shuttle flight marks the end of an era, but today, we recommit ourselves to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary - and difficult - steps to ensure America's leadership in human spaceflight for years to come."

After spending more than eight days attached to the ISS, Atlantis undocked from the Harmony Node, bidding farewell to the complex for the last time.

As the ISS enters an era of utilization, Ferguson said they will never forget the role the space shuttle played in its creation.

"Like a proud parent we anticipate great things to follow from the men and women who build, operate and live there," Ferguson said.

The shuttle's final mission was filled with many reflections to the program's past and hopes for NASA's next step.

"The information and experience gained from all the space shuttle flights will be used to carry mankind beyond lower earth orbit to the moon, mars or perhaps an asteroid some day." Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus said during the crew's tribute to the shuttle program.

Atlantis' last commander presented the station crew with an American flag that flew aboard shuttle Columbia on America's first shuttle flight in 1981.

Ferguson gave the station's crew the flag as a symbol of the U.S.'s continued presence in space. The flag will remain on the ISS until the next crew launched from the U.S. returns to the station to retrieve it.

The crew of STS-135 made every effort to thank the team of workers who made the shuttle program possible.

As Ferguson signed his crew's mission patch on the wall of the Unity node, the first U.S. portion of the station before departing he said, "What you don't see is the signatures of the tens of thousands who rose to orbit with us over the past 30 years, if only in spirit."

Mission Specialist Rex Walheim called the space shuttle program an inspiration to the entire country.

"When you watch the space shuttle take off, you can't help but be proud of your country that can take this magnificent machine and launch it into space at 25 times the speed of sound," Walheim said.

The shuttle returned with the Raffaello logistics module, filled with nearly three tons of unneeded materials from the ISS. The 21-foot long, 15-foot diameter high-tech storage container was used to transport more than 3 tons of supplies and equipment to stock the station before the shuttle's absence.

With its maiden launch on Oct. 3, 1985, Atlantis became the fourth orbiter to join NASA's shuttle fleet.

During its nearly 27 years of service, it has flown 33 flights playing roles in the creation of the ISS, servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and fostering a spirit of cooperation between nations during the Shuttle-Mir Program.

Now, what once were the nation's workhorses in space will soon become relics on display at museum around the nation.

After decommissioning, Atlantis will be placed on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center visitor's complex.

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