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Atlantis lands after final space voyage

Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 21, 2011

The US space shuttle Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, completing a 30-year odyssey for Nasa's shuttle fleet.   

Atlantis and its four-member crew returned from a 13-day resupply mission to the International Space Station shortly before daybreak at the space center where the ship will go on display as a museum piece.

After three decades of sending shuttles into orbit around Earth, Nasa has retired them to focus on building new ships that can travel farther into space. 

Atlantis' return from the 135th shuttle mission caps 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.

The shuttles' retirement opens the door for a new commercial space transportation industry, with Nasa relying on US firms to deliver cargo to the station starting next year and to fly its astronauts there by about 2015.   

Until space taxis are available, Russia will take on the job of flying crews to the station, at a cost of more than $50 million per person.

The primary goal of Atlantis' flight was to deliver a year's worth of supplies to the station in case Nasa's newly hired cargo suppliers, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp, encounter delays preparing their new vehicles for flight.

The final shuttle crew included just four astronauts -- commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, flight engineer Rex Walheim and mission specialist Sandy Magnus -- rather than the typical six or seven astronauts, a precaution in case Atlantis was too damaged to safely attempt the return to Earth.

With no more shuttles available for a rescue, Nasa's backup plan was to rely on the smaller Russian Soyuz capsules. Nasa added a rescue plan after the 2003 Columbia accident.   

Atlantis and sister ships Discovery and Endeavour have been promised to museums. With the shuttle program's end, more than 3,000 contractors in Florida, Texas and Alabama will be out of a job, a bittersweet ending to a program that leaves the space station as its crowning legacy. - Reuters




Tags: nasa | Atlantis | shuttle | Astronauts |

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