The space shuttle Atlantis glided home to a safe, predawn scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Thursday, ending the U.S. human space flight program for now.
The last journey of a U.S. space shuttle had all the elements of a successful movie from its dramatic will-it-or-won’t-it takeoff to the happy ending of a successful landing. The four astronauts aboard re-stocked the International Space Station with enough food to last a year, new equipment for recycling water and science experiments.
(PICTURES: The Last Shuttle Mission)
NASA made the 135th space shuttle mission sentimental from beginning to end. The four crew woke up to "God Bless America" on their final morning in space.
"Atlantis is home, its journey complete,” NASA mission control announcer Rob Navias said as the shuttle glided down on the runway. “Having fired the imagination of a generation, a ship like no other, its place in history secured, the space shuttle pulls into port for the last time, its voyage at an end."
Shuttle commander Chris Ferguson had a speech too.
“The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world, it has changed the way we view our universe," he said after guiding the giant white orbiter back to Earth. "There was a lot of emotion today but one thing is indisputable: America is not going to stop exploring.”
(VIDEO: The Shuttle's Final Landing)
While it was up, NASA announced plans to work with private industry on the giant rockets that will launch the next space vehicle, a capsule. NASA also strenuously defended its view of the future against critics who say the space agency doesn’t have a real plan
But more than 1,500 shuttle workers will lose their jobs Friday and U.S. astronauts must book passage to and from the space station on Russian launch vehicles.
In Congress, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would kill funding for the James Webb Space Telescope in 2012. The telescope is designed to be a successor to the enormously successful orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, which helped scientists calculate the age of the universe, learn more about dark energy, and literally see the birth of stars. But Webb has run over budget and is behind schedule.
NASA is also struggling to paint a picture of what human space flight will look like in the future, while planning robotic missions to Mars and to asteroids. The Dawn spacecraft is sending back close-ups of an asteroid, Vesta, this week, and in August the Juno mission takes off to explore Jupiter.