Space Shuttle Atlantis landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center Thursday morning, wrapping up a nearly two-week mission and the 30-year Space Shuttle program.
Members of the news media arrived at the NASA press site around 1 a.m. Thursday morning for the 5:57 a.m. landing time. Dozens of satellite trucks lined the parking lot of the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, a scene that press officials here have not seen for a shuttle landing since the early days of the program.
Some 260 miles above, the International Space Station passed over the Shuttle Landing Facility site just minutes before Atlantis arrived back home, appearing as a fast moving bright star in the sky. Atlantis’ arrival began with two powerful sonic booms as the Shuttle maneuvered overhead to bleed off the last of the energy that took it into orbit on July 8. Atlantis did not come into view until it passed through powerful xenon spotlights that illuminate the runway, leaving photographers mere seconds to capture the shuttle before it rolled out of view. Shuttles land at speeds faster than indy cars, hitting the runway at 226 miles per hour.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden, himself a former shuttle astronaut who flew on four missions, greeted the astronauts upon their safe return to Earth. He has frequently broken down in tears at public events when speaking of the end of the program and the reduction in workforce.
“The brave astronauts of STS-135 are emblematic of the shuttle program — skilled professionals from diverse backgrounds who propelled America to continued leadership in space with the shuttle’s many successes,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a release issued this morning. “This final shuttle flight marks the end of an era, but today, we recommit ourselves to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary – and difficult – steps to ensure America’s leadership in human spaceflight for years to come.”
Watch Atlantis’ final tow back to her hanger:
The final leg of Atlantis’ mission began around 11 a.m. as the orbiter was towed slowly back to its hanger where it will undergo its transition into retirement, with shuttle workers proudly escorting the spaceship they had spent the last three decades servicing. News media present at the side of a swampy road leading to the processing facility watched and photographed largely in silence, making the 30 minute “tow back” feel more like a funeral procession than a celebratory parade.
The orbiter was then parked outside its processing facility for a final celebration honoring Space Shuttle workers. A lone technician was sealed in the orbiter monitoring systems while the event went on, enduring 100 degree temperatures in the crew compartment until the event concluded and Atlantis was brought into its hanger. He occasionally appeared in the window and waved.
The returning shuttle astronauts joined the celebration briefly, each conveying their gratitude to the workforce for helping them complete a complex mission.
“There is no workforce like the space program workforce anywhere in the world. The pride you take in your work, the care you take in your work, the dedication and the passion. You are what makes it possible for us to have these challenging missions and succeed,” said Astronaut Sandy Magnus, mission specialist on Atlantis’ final flight.
The mood was festive, but many employees of United Space Alliance, the contractor that runs the Shuttle program for NASA, will be out of work tomorrow. Approximately 1,560 workers experienced their last day at work Thursday, joining thousands of their other former colleagues who have been laid off in prior rounds of reductions.
“Any major change in one’s life you go through these four stages, denial, anger, exploration and acceptance. And so we’ve all been through that now in the shuttle program, we’ve accepted the fact that it’s over,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinchbach at a news conference Thursday, “We knew the end was coming, I believe the workforce has handled that change well, because we were given time to accept that change.”
As the NASA community mourns the loss of the iconic program, the focus is now shifting to future missions that will go beyond earth orbit and commercial companies taking over space station resupply flights. For Shuttle workers, this new future has not come soon enough.