By the light of the Moon, and accompanied by tears, cheers and a flurry of star-spangled tributes, the space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth yesterday, bringing down the curtain on three decades of space exploration.
The 135th Nasa shuttle mission ended at 5.57am, with touchdown at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The final mission, delivering supplies to the International Space Station, had lasted 13 days.
Watched by 2,000 onlookers hardy enough to rise before dawn, Atlantis generated two sonic booms as she dived towards the runway. A parachute was deployed shortly afterwards, and "wheels stop" was achieved a minute later.
"After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. And now it has come to a final stop," Christopher Ferguson, commander of the four-person crew, declared from the cockpit. "Mission complete, Houston." Almost 1,000 miles away, Mission Control replied: "Job well done, America!"
Although the spectacle was relatively understated compared with the craft's extravagant final take-off earlier this month, which drew some one million onlookers, it was nonetheless heavily imbued with a sense of history and nostalgia.
Along with the other two surviving space shuttles, Atlantis will now be transported to a museum, the victim of budget cuts and the relentless march of technology. Its retirement will leave America without any means to launch its own astronauts into orbit, and end half a century of Nasa's dominance in space exploration.
After the first, groundbreaking launch of Columbia, in 1981, space shuttles were responsible for building the International Space Station, a multinational space laboratory due to be completed next year, and for launching the Hubble Telescope. During 135 missions, the five shuttles flew 542 million miles, orbiting Earth 21,150 times, and carrying 355 people from 16 countries.
"The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it's changed the way we view our universe," said Commander Ferguson, who was surrounded by well-wishers when he emerged on to the runway shortly after sunrise. "There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing is indisputable: America is not going to stop exploring," he said.
Over the years, the programme bounced back from the Challenger and Columbia disasters, in 1986 and 2003 respectively. But it never really lived up to its creators' vision of providing an inexpensive means to explore space. In recent years, each launch cost around $450m (£280m).
With Nasa facing annual budget cuts of $1.9bn, and the White House eager to focus on explorations of deeper space, a decision was taken seven years ago to close the shuttle programme.
Last-ditch appeals from figures such as Neil Armstrong failed to prompt a change of heart, and roughly 9,000 jobs in and around Cape Canaveral are now likely to be lost.
For at least the next three years, and possibly a decade, US astronauts wishing to visit the International Space Station will need to take berths on a fleet of Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft still operated by Russia, at a cost of $60m a trip.Reuse content