CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Space shuttle Atlantis returned from its final voyage Wednesday, closing out a quarter-century flying career and safely bringing back six astronauts from a successful space station mission. "Twenty-five years, 32 flights and more than 120 million miles traveled. The legacy of Atlantis now in the history books," Mission Control's commentator announced at touchdown.
About 1,200 guests - the maximum number allowed - lined the Kennedy Space Center runway for the conclusion to NASA's third-to-last shuttle flight. Employees wore white ribbons with the name "Atlantis" and its picture embossed in gold. Even the lead flight directors came in from Houston for the event. "That was pretty sweet," Mission Control radioed after Atlantis glided through a clear morning sky.
"That was a suiting end to an incredible mission." Commander Kenneth Ham replied that he was ready to turn Atlantis over to the ground teams and get the ship "back in the barn for a little bit." He and his crew faced a longer receiving line than usual, after emerging into the sunshine. Only two shuttle missions remain, by NASA's two other spaceships. Barring a reprieve from the White House, Atlantis will stand by as a rescue ship for the very last shuttle flight, then head off to a museum somewhere.
Atlantis' all-male crew accomplished everything they set out to do after rocketing into orbit May 14, installing a new Russian compartment, six fresh batteries and an extra antenna at the International Space Station. Atlantis - the fourth in NASA's shuttle series - is ending its run after having spent an accumulated 294 days in orbit and circled Earth 4,648 times. It's carried 189 astronauts and visited the International Space Station 11 times. It also flew seven times to Russia's old Mir station and once to the Hubble Space Telescope.
The shuttle added another 4.8 million miles this time around, for a grand total of 120,650,907 miles over its lifetime. The 120-millionth mile was logged shortly after midnight. At the space station, the residents managed to catch a glimpse of Atlantis' final re-entry. "Most impressive," observed astronaut Timothy Creamer.
As a tribute to their ship, the astronauts flew a small U.S. flag that accompanied Atlantis into orbit on its maiden voyage in 1985, as well as a couple tool bins full of shuttle mementos. Sir Isaac Newton even got in on the act, albeit posthumously. British-born astronaut Piers Sellers flew a wood chip from the actual tree from which an apple fell nearly 350 years ago and inspired Newton to discover the law of gravity.
Once Atlantis is back in the hangar, it will be prepped for a potential rescue mission for what's currently slated to be the final shuttle flight by Endeavour. Endeavour's trip is targeted for November, but NASA managers will reassess the date in another week or two. The only other flight on the books is a supply run to the space station by Discovery in September. That date also is being evaluated.
Both of those missions have payload issues that are threatening to cause delays. NASA would like to fly Atlantis again in June 2011 - just two months past the shuttle program's 30th anniversary - provided no rescue mission is needed for Endeavour's flight. It would be one last supply run with a four-person crew that could camp out at the space station in the event of serious shuttle damage and return to Earth in Russian Soyuz capsules.
The space station - 98 percent complete now in terms of living space - will lose half of its six-person crew in another week. Three astronauts will return to Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz on June 2, and their replacements will fly up two weeks after that. Americans will keep hitching rides on Russian rockets until U.S. private enterprise is able to take over.
That's one of the goals set forth earlier this year by President Barack Obama, who wants astronauts aiming for asteroids and Mars in the next few decades. Another in a series of congressional hearings on NASA's future got under way in Washington, just as Atlantis' beaming crew and shuttle workers were admiring the shuttle on the runway for the last time.