Atlantis Returns to Earth, Signaling End of Shuttle Program

The historic space shuttle program comes to a close as Atlantis returns safely to Earth for the last time.

Just before dawn on the morning of July 21, the space shuttle Atlantis landed for the final time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center after 200 orbits around Earth and a journey of 5,284,862 miles on STS-135. It was the 25th night landing, the 78th landing at Kennedy and the 133rd landing in shuttle history.

Atlantis' main gear touched down at 5:57 a.m. followed by the nose gear at 5:57:20 and wheels stop at 5:57:54 a.m. At wheels stop, the mission elapsed time was 12 days, 18 hours, 28 minutes and 50 seconds. STS-135 was the 33rd and final flight for Atlantis, which spent 307 days in space, orbited Earth 4,848 times and traveled 125,935,769 miles.

The STS-135 crew consisted of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. They delivered more than 9,400 pounds of spare parts, spare equipment and other supplies in the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module - including 2,677 pounds of food - that will sustain space station operations for the next year. The 21-foot long, 15-foot diameter Raffaello brought back nearly 5,700 pounds of unneeded materials from the station.

A post-landing news conference at Kennedy is planned on NASA TV; participants will be Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations, Bob Cabana, Kennedy center director, Mike Moses, space shuttle launch integration manager, and Mike Leinbach, space shuttle launch director.

July 20, the final day of the final space shuttle mission, began with an iconic final wakeup song. Kate Smith's rendition of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" woke the crew. But unlike most wakeup songs, which are played in honor of a particular crew member, this one was dedicated to not only the entire crew, but also all "the men and women who put their heart and soul into the shuttle program for all these years," as Capcom Shannon Lucid told the crew.

Since STS-1 launched on April 12, 1981, 355 individuals from 16 countries flew 852 times aboard the shuttle. The five shuttles traveled more than 542 million miles and hosted more than 2,000 experiments in the fields of Earth, astronomy, biological and materials sciences. The shuttles docked with two space stations, the Russian Mir and the International Space Station. Shuttles deployed 180 payloads, including satellites, returned 52 from space and retrieved, repaired and redeployed seven spacecraft.

With closing of the space shuttle program, many have been wondering what this means for NASA and the future of American manned spaceflight. The space agency addressed these concerns, claiming the end of the shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA, or even of NASA sending humans into space. Outlining its program of exploration, technology development and scientific research, NASA said the program would last for years to come.

NASA said it is also working on capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system and working toward landing humans on Mars. The agency plans to build the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule, with a capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions.