CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - The shuttle Atlantis touched down before dawn on Thursday, marking the sunset of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program.
Landing came at 5:57 a.m. ET, less than an hour before sunrise at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the last operating space shuttle will make its home in retirement.
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..Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said the shuttle's final touchdown would be emotional, and he was true to his word. "After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle's earned its place in history. And it's come to a final stop," he said.
Job well done, America," Mission Control communicator Barry Wilmore replied.
Ferguson went on to say that the shuttle program "has changed the way we view the world, and it's changed the way we view our universe."
"There are a lot of emotions today, but one things indisputable: America's not going to stop exploring," he vowed.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden voiced a similar sentiment in remarks released after the landing: "This final shuttle flight marks the end of an era, but today, we recommit ourselves to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary — and difficult — steps to ensure America's leadership in human spaceflight for years to come."
Hundreds turned out at Kennedy Space Center to witness the last-ever landing of a space shuttle. Crowds of shuttle program workers, many of whom will be losing their jobs due to the fleet's retirement, gathered to watch TV coverage at Johnson Space Center in Texas. Inside Mission Control, team members and VIPs shook hands, hugged and took pictures of each other to document the occasion.
"Right now, at this moment, it's a celebratory mood," shuttle systems instructor Michael Grabois said via telephone from Mission Control. "We all know it's the end of the program ... but we're all here to savor the moment."