Hosuton, Jul 21: Space shuttle Atlantis touched down safely in its final landing at the Kennedy Space Centre here today, bringing the curtain down on the NASA's 30-year space shuttle programme considered one of the most eventful eras in the US history of manned spaceflight.
Atlantis landed just before sunrise at 6 am local time, completing its 13-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS), with its Commander paying tribute to the long-running space shuttle programme.
Around 2,000 people gathered to watch the historic landing, which came as a long-awaited - and much-dreaded - milestone marking the end of an eventful era for the US manned spaceflight.
Coming home to a future clouded by tight budgets and uncertain political support, Commander Christopher Ferguson guided Atlantis through a sweeping left overhead turn and lined up on runway 15, quickly descending into the glare of powerful xenon spotlights.
The mood was electric, both sad and triumphant, as a vehicle that had been hurtling through space a little more than an hour earlier rolled to a graceful stop at the Kennedy Space Centre.
“Mission complete, Houston,” Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson radioed to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. “After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle found its place in history, and it's come to a final stop.”
“We copy your wheels stop and we'll take this opportunity to congratulate you, Atlantis, as well as the thousands of passionate individuals across this great spacefaring nation who truly empowered this incredible spacecraft, which for three decades has inspired millions around the globe,” capcom Barry “Butch” Wilmore said from Mission Control. “Job well done, America.”
It was the 33rd voyage for Atlantis, and the 135th for NASA's reusable winged spaceships. The 30-year space shuttle programme, which began with the launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981, is at a close.
“The space shuttle changed the way we viewed the world, and it changed the way we view our universe,” he said.
“There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing is indisputable: America is not going to stop exploring. Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this programme to such a fitting end. God bless all of you. God bless the United States of America.”
Ferguson led a veteran crew of four on this last mission, including pilot Doug Hurley and specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. They were the last of 355 spaceflyers to ride aboard the space shuttle over the years.
“We have had just an event-filled and packed mission,” Ferguson said from space yesterday. “We're not going to fully appreciate the significance of the event until after the wheels have stopped.”
The space shuttle is a pinnacle of complex engineering and robotics, but it is also a very human machine, made possible only through the cooperative work of thousands of people in space and on the ground.
“Really the heart and soul of the space programme is the people that work in the space programme,” Magnus said from orbit. “It's a group of people unlike any other field because everyone's so passionate, so dedicated.” PTI