CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Atlantis is back on Earth, and the shuttle era is over.
Atlantis and its four astronauts glided through the twilight Thursday and landed in Florida shortly before sunrise.
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Hundreds gathered near the runway to welcome Atlantis home — and to bid NASA's 30-year space shuttle program goodbye. Atlantis' successful space station restocking mission closed out the shuttle era.
This was a true homecoming for Atlantis. The next-to-youngest shuttle will remain at Kennedy Space Center and be put on display.
|Johnson Space Center security officers lower the Atlantis mission flag at Johnson Space Center in Houston after the shuttle landed at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., today. (AP Photo)
NASA's next stop with astronauts will be an asteroid, then Mars. Private companies will take over trips to the International Space Station.
Atlantis zoomed back toward Earth on Thursday to make the very last landing of the 30-year program.
Atlantis' crew of four fired the braking rockets in the wee hours of the morning. That set them on a course toward an on-time touchdown just before dawn at 5:56 a.m., one last shuttle touchdown for the history books.
"The weather couldn't be better," Mission Control assured shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson.
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.
Hundreds were gathering at NASA's landing strip to welcome Atlantis home.
"Time to make our mamas proud," flight director Tony Ceccacci told his team in Houston's Mission Control. "Coming home, folks."
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.
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