Atlantis lands safely, ending US spaceflight era
Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida ending NASA`s space shuttle program.
Cape Canaveral, US: Atlantis touched down for a final time Thursday, ending its last mission to the International Space Station and bringing down the curtain on NASA`s 30-year space shuttle program.
The shuttle and its four-member US crew landed safely at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 am (0956 GMT), closing an era of human space exploration for the United States and leaving Russia as the world`s only taxi to the ISS.
"Atlantis is home, its journey complete. A moment in history to be savored," mission control`s commentator said.
"America is not going to stop exploring," shuttle commander Chris Ferguson said. "God bless the United States of America."
Twin sonic booms were heard over Florida moments before the shuttle glided home to perfect pre-dawn weather, with clear skies and hardly any wind at the Kennedy Space Center.
Earlier the crew woke to the song "God Bless America," in preparation for the bittersweet end to the storied shuttle career, 42 years after US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
The four US crew members on shuttle mission STS-135 wrapped up a successful 13-day trip to restock the ISS for a year with several tons of supplies and food.
Over the course of the program, five NASA shuttles -- Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour -- have comprised a fleet designed as the world`s first reusable space vehicles.
The first shuttle flight to space lifted off April 12, 1981.
Columbia exploded in 2003 and Challenger was destroyed in 1986 in accidents that killed a total of 14 crew members.
Those disasters left only three in the space-flying fleet and Enterprise, a prototype that never flew in space. The quartet will become museum pieces in the coming months.
Critics have assailed the US space agency for lacking a focus with the space shuttle gone and no next-generation human spaceflight program to immediately replace it.
The astronaut corps now numbers 60, compared to the 128 employed in 2000, and thousands of people are being laid off from Kennedy Space Center. But NASA chiefs say future missions to deep space should revive hope in the US program.
"We have just not done a good job of telling our story. NASA is very busy," the agency`s administrator Charles Bolden said.
"The president said to us, 2025 for an asteroid and 2030 to Mars. We have a lot of work to do ahead."
NASA is building a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that hopes to reach that goal, while it turns over low-orbit space travel and space station servicing to commercial ventures.
A commercial launcher and capsule built by a private corporation in partnership with NASA may be ready to tote crew members as early as 2015.
Until the private sector fills the void left by the shuttle`s retirement, the world`s astronauts will rely on Russian Soyuz rockets for rides to the ISS.