Atlantis Landing Ends 30 Years Of Shuttle Missions

fromWMFE

Atlantis and its four crew members landed at the Kennedy Space Center just before 6 a.m. Now that Atlantis has returned to Earth, there will be no more shuttle flights. The program is ending after 30 years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly. The U.S. space shuttle program is over. The shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida just before 6 AM Eastern time.

Commander CHRIS FERGUSON (Space Shuttle Atlantis): Mission complete, Houston. After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle's earned its place in history. And it's come to a final stop.

KELLY: That was shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson, speaking as the shuttle rolled to a stop. And as you heard him say there, the shuttle program lasted 30 years. It carried out 135 missions. Well, Judith Smelser of member station WMFE is at Kennedy Space Center, where she was watching all of this, this morning. She's on the line there - from there now. Good morning, Judith.

JUDITH SMELSER: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this appeared to be just a very smooth landing. Everything went to plan, is that right?

SMELSER: Absolutely. It was a picture-perfect landing. It wasn't much to look at. It was - it happened in the dark, before sunrise, and under a starry sky here in Florida. It was only the 25th night landing ever for the space shuttle program, but everything went well. There were no technical problem, very smooth, and a perfect ending to the last shuttle mission.

KELLY: Is there a palpable sense of relief there, now that after so many months of planning, the astronauts are back safe and sound on Earth?

SMELSER: Absolutely. Any time a space shuttle comes home safely, it's a sense of relief for NASA and for everyone here. I think, too, it's a sense of release. NASA had been so focused on this mission and the safety of its mission and so determined not to get distracted by the fact that this was the final space shuttle mission. Now, officials and everyone involved is really letting themselves express their emotions and express the gravity of this occasion today. So I think a sense of relief on many fronts.

KELLY: And now, what will happen to the Atlantis shuttle itself now?

SMELSER: Atlantis gets to stay here at Kennedy Space Center. A lot of people here in Florida are happy about that. It will eventually go on display at the visitor's complex here. They're building a huge, new exhibit space for it, 65,000 square feet. It's going to cost $100 million. They're expecting to break ground on that next year, with a grand opening in 2013. And they're hoping that's going to bring in a bunch of tourists to this area and maybe add a little bump back into the local economy, which, of course, is taking a big hit from the end of the shuttle program.

KELLY: Well, speaking of the end of the shuttle program, you mentioned a sense of relief and release there. Are people already starting to talk about what may be next for NASA?

SMELSER: People are talking about that all the time here, especially the people who are being laid off. About 9,000 space shuttle workers from Kennedy Space Center will be laid off when all is said and done, and they're wondering whether they might have a place in the next space program. Of course, for now, for the next several years, NASA astronauts will be riding to the space station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and then, eventually, though, NASA hopes to work with private space companies to take cargo to the space station.

The first cargo flight is expected to happen by the end of this year. It'll take a little longer for the commercial companies to get astronauts to the international space station, but they're hoping for that to happen in the next three to five years. And then, beyond that, President Obama set a goal of NASA itself doing research to get to an asteroid by 2025 and then to Mars 10 years after that. A lot of uncertainty, though, about how exactly that's going to happen, how NASA's going to get to those far-off destinations, but that's what everyone is talking about here at Kennedy Space Center.

KELLY: All right. Thanks very much, Judith.

SMELSER: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Judith Smelser of member station WMFE, reporting for us from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they had a very exciting morning. The shuttle Atlantis landed safe and sound this morning.

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