Atlantis has landed, ending NASA's shuttle era

The space shuttle Atlantis glided home through a clear moonlit sky on Thursday to complete a 13-day cargo...

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The space shuttle

Atlantis glided home through a clear moonlit sky on Thursday to

complete a 13-day cargo run to the International Space Station

and a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle program.

Commander Chris Ferguson gently steered the 100-ton

spaceship high overhead, then nose-dived toward the

swamp-surrounded landing strip at the Kennedy Space Center, a

few miles (km) from where Atlantis will go on display as a

museum piece.

Double sonic booms shattered the predawn silence around the

space center, the last time residents will hear the sound of a

shuttle coming home.

Ferguson eased Atlantis onto the runway at 5:57 a.m. EDT

(0957 GMT), ending a 5.2 million-mile (8.4 million-km) journey

and closing a key chapter in human space flight history.

"Mission complete, Houston," Ferguson radioed to Mission

Control.

Astronaut Barry Wilmore from Mission Control answered back,

"We'll take this opportunity to congratulate you Atlantis, as

well as the thousands of passionate individuals across this

great space-faring nation who truly empowered this incredible

spacecraft, which for three decades has inspired millions

around the globe."

Atlantis' return from the 135th shuttle mission capped a

30-year program that made spaceflight appear routine, despite

two fatal accidents that killed 14 astronauts and destroyed two

of NASA's five spaceships.

The last accident investigation board recommended the

shuttles be retired after construction was finished on the

space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations. That

milestone was reached this year.

Details of a follow-on program are still pending, but the

overall objective is to build new spaceships that can travel

beyond the station's 250-mile (400-km) orbit and send

astronauts to the moon, asteroids and other destinations in

deep space.