Space Shuttle Atlantis lands and an era in space travel ends

The space shuttle era officially ended early Thursday morning as Atlantis touched down under a cloudless and star-spangled sky at Kennedy Space Center.

After two signature sonic booms, the spacecraft seemed to suddenly drop out of the darkness on the three-mile runway, completing its long glide home from orbit precisely on the mark at 5:57 a.m.

The safe return of a shuttle and its crew from a dangerous journey is always a cause for celebration but this one — the final landing after 135 missions spanning 30 years — was bittersweet.

The next mission for Atlantis will be as a tourist attraction. America’s astronaut corps will be consigned to hitching rides aboard Russian rockets, at least for the next few years until private companies prove they can safely fly in space. And another 2,300 workers at KSC will get pink slips within the week, only the latest in continuing waves of layoffs expected that will eventually add up to some 8,000 lost jobs for Florida’s Space Coast.

The last mission was somewhat mundane, a 13-day trip intended primarily to restock the International Space Station with supplies and spare parts. But history and the uncertain future of America’s space program gave the final flight poignancy and weight. At Mission Control in Houston, the viewing room was filled with former flight directors and their families.

It was, said NASA mission commentator Rob Navias as Atlantis burned through the atmosphere on its final descent, a “day of mixed emotions.’’

On Wednesday, as the crew prepared the ship for re-entry, Atlantis commander Christopher Ferguson expressed feelings shared by thousands of engineers, scientists and workers now left without a clear mission – and, in many cases, jobs.

“It’s going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years,’’ he said. But we’re going to try to keep it upbeat. We’re going to try to make it a celebration of the tremendous crowning achievements that have occurred over the last 30 years.’’

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