June 1, 2011— -- The space shuttle Endeavour and its crew returned safely to the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Fla., at 2:35 a.m. EST, completing the 134th flight of the 30-year-old space shuttle program.
Endeavour's commander, Mark Kelly, is married to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from an assassination tempt earlier this year. Kelly's fellow astronauts on this mission all wore the blue bracelets reading "Peace Love Gabby" during this 16-day flight, a sign of solidarity and support.
"The space shuttle is an amazing vehicle to fly though the atmosphere … on behalf of the entire crew I want to thank all of the people that worked on the mission," Kelly said upon landing.
"It is sad to see her land for the last time, but she really has a great legacy," he added.
NASA Manager Mike Moses joked, "After 16 days I am sure they are glad to get back and to take a shower!"
Endeavour undocked, then flew around the International Space Station on Sunday for a flawless re-entry across the Pacific ocean, Central America, and into Florida, gliding onto Runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center -- it s arrival heralded by its signature double sonic boom.
This mission set several records - the second spacewalk of the mission by astronauts Drew Feustel and Mike Fincke ran over eight hours, and Mike Fincke set a new record for time in space for a U.S. astronaut -- 380 days.
The crew installed the AMS -- a $2 billion dollar cosmic ray detector, which is now gathering billions of samples daily from space in the quest to prove -- or disprove -- the Big Bang Theory of how our universe was formed.
It was a bittersweet night at the Kennedy Space Center, one space shuttle landing, another rolling out to the launch pad. Atlantis is now on the launch pad getting outfitted for the final space shuttle mission, STS 135, which is scheduled to launch in July, on a critical supply mission to keep the International Space Station.
The crew of Atlantis calls themselves "The Final Four." Their mission may not sound glamorous, but the supplies they bring up will keep the space station operating at full capacity.
Commander Kelly and his crew return to Houston Thursday for a welcome home and a reunion with their families.
Endeavour's 25th and final flight caps a remarkable career. It was commissioned to replace Challenger after its destruction, then executed a series of missions that have been daring and breathtaking, accomplishing feats some thought were not possible in space.
On previous flights its crew repaired disabled satellites, flew cutting edge, sometimes goofy, medical experiments -- and flew a Coke machine that didn't quite work. One of its crews staged the only three person spacewalk.
Its most spectacular mission was when it flew into high orbit -- something engineers weren't sure it could do -- and had the nation sitting on the edge of its seat when it repaired the crippled Hubble Space Telescope.
The shuttle's numbers tell the story - 299 days, 4,671 orbits and 122,853,151 miles logged.
Endeavour will eventually end up in a museum in California -- a premature retirement for an orbiter that some say is capable of so much more.