The shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth Wednesday from the final space flight of its 25-year career, marking the beginning of a bittersweet end for NASA’s storied space shuttle program.
Shuttle commander Ken Ham touched the spacecraft down at 8:48 am (1248 GMT), completing a flawless landing on the runway at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
As it descended toward Earth, Atlantis glided over the south Pacific, Panama and the western tip of Cuba before reaching Florida and the space center, and was “rock solid on the final approach,” center director Robert Cabana said.
Space officials had words of high praise for Ham’s handling of the space vehicle.
“That looked pretty sweet,” said Charlie Hobaugh, who as NASA’s “capsule communicator” is generally the only person who interacts directly with a shuttle crew during a spaceflight.
Wednesday’s landing caps the 25-year career of one of NASA’s iconic spacecrafts.
Two more shuttle flights are currently scheduled including one by Discovery in September and one for Endeavour in November.
Then, the three orbiters are set to be retired after three decades of service with the US refocusing its space program.
Officials from NASA, however, have not ruled an additional mission for Atlantis fly once more. Atlantis will be in a backup role during the Endeavour mission, and could also make an additional space flight if the White House and Congress agree on this, noted Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator.
NASA officials celebrating the end of the Atlantis mission also lamented the approaching end to the shuttle program.
“I think we were all struck by the fact that it might be the last landing of Atlantis,” said launch director Mike Leinbach.
“We have doing the launching and landing for 30 years… so there is not just a technical fascination… there is an emotional tie to it,” he added.
“But the budget is what it is and the next mission will dictate the architecture of that vehicle whatever might be, I just hope it comes quickly.”
The shuttle uncoupled from the orbiting International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday after delivering 12 tonnes of supplies and equipment.
The ISS, a joint project involving 16 countries, has cost around 100 billion dollars, mostly funded by the United States.
The six-member shuttle crew unloaded a crucial communications antenna, power storage batteries and a radiator during their rendezvous with the orbiting space station.
The biggest single item was the five-tonne Rassvet research module, or MRM-1, which will provide additional storage space and a new docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.
The Rassvet — “Dawn” in Russian — was permanently attached to the bottom of the space station’s Zarya module. It carries important hardware on its exterior including a radiator, airlock and a European robotic arm.
Atlantis astronauts completed three spacewalks during the mission. During the final one on Friday, they plugged a new ammonia jumper cable into the station, transferred a grapple fixture from the shuttle to the station and reconfigured some tools.
Atlantis logged some five million miles on the mission, its 32nd. Officials said that as of Wednesday it had logged a total of 120 million miles during its quarter-century long career.
US President Barack Obama has opted not to fund a successor program, which would have sent humans back to the moon, and instead opted to encourage development of private spacecraft. He also laid out plans to send astronauts into Mars orbit within the next three decades.
Once the shuttle program ends, the United States will rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to carry its astronauts to the space station until a commercial US launcher can be developed. That is scheduled for 2015.