July 21, 2011— -- For one last time, the Space Shuttle Atlantis made a long, steep turn, lined up with the runway and landed in the half-light before dawn at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"After serving the world for 30 years, the space shuttle has found its place in history," said Christopher Ferguson, the astronaut who commanded Atlantis' final mission, by radio to mission control. "Wheels stop." The ship came to rest at 5:58 a.m. EDT, after a flight of 12 days, 18 hours, 28 minutes and 55 seconds.
And that was that.
After 135 flights in 30 years, the space shuttles are now history. NASA said before landing that with Atlantis' flight over, the five shuttle orbiters would together have traveled 537,114,016 miles in orbit. Three hundred and thirty-five astronauts have flown on them; 14 died when the shuttles Columbia and Challenger were lost.
Atlantis alone made 33 flights, carried 191 space fliers, spent 307 days in orbit, circled Earth 4,848 times and put 125,935,769 miles on its odometer.
Now, for America's human spaceflight program, comes a period of retrenchment and doubt. With Atlantis is safely on the ground today, 2,300 shuttle workers are scheduled to get layoff notices this week. More than 15,000 people worked for NASA or its contractors on the shuttle program; 8,000 of those jobs will be lost.
NASA's space program is hardly over; astronauts will continue to live for months at a time on the International Space Station until at least 2020. Eventually, the Obama administration proposes they go explore a passing asteroid, and ultimately land on Mars.
An ambitious probe to orbit Jupiter is on the launch pad, scheduled for an August launch. A new Mars rover, called Curiosity, is scheduled to leave in November; NASA says it would announce Friday where on the Martian surface Curiosity would try to land.
But for now the one way for Americans to reach orbit will be by hitching seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. NASA says that in a few years the job will be taken over by private companies such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada or Boeing. Each has a spacecraft and launcher in the works, though so far, only governments have ever launched people into orbit.
And as for the shuttles? The three surviving orbiters now become museum pieces. Atlantis will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center visitors' center. Its seniormost sister ship, Discovery, goes to the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia outside Washington. Endeavour will be sent to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
It is a quiet ending to a program that, in many eyes, never could live up to the promises made when it was conceived in the early 1970s. It was supposed to make spaceflight affordable, safe and routine. Instead, it proved risky and expensive. Flights have been estimated to cost about half a billion dollars each.
"But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it," said former shuttle astronaut Duane Carey in an interview with The Associated Press. "What matters is that we strived mightily to do so -- and we did strive mightily. The main legacy left by the shuttle program is that of a magnificent failure."
Before flight, Atlantis' commander Ferguson was asked about the prospect of eventually of going to Mars.
"We have the capability," he said. "We could go there today if our pockets didn't have a bottom to them. But unfortunately they do, and we answer to economic pressure. And that will keep us where we are for a while."