End Of An Era: Space Shuttle Lands In Florida

Space shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida early Thursday morning. This is the final homecoming for NASA's 30-year-old shuttle program, as the agency retires its fleet of spaceships and faces an uncertain future.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Early this morning, Space Shuttle Atlantis spent his last hours in orbit. Commander Chris Ferguson sounded relaxed as he checked in with mission control in Houston. He described the view as the ship made its fiery reentry through the Earth's atmosphere.

Commander CHRIS FERGUSON (Space Shuttle Atlantis, NASA): Hey, (unintelligible). How are you doing?

Unidentified Man: We are doing fantastic. How about you?

Cmdr. FERGUSON: I'm doing fantastic. But I wish we could share everybody - with everybody this really cool glow. It's just amazing outside.

NORRIS: Soon after that...

(Soundbite of sonic booms)

NORRIS: ...twin sonic booms over Florida announced that the shuttle was about to land for the very last time.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on the end of NASA's space shuttle era.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: As Atlantis glided back to Earth before dawn, the scene looked like a black and white movie, with the white lights on the runway, and the familiar black-and-white ship swooping through the darkness.

Atlantis rolled to a halt and Commander Chris Ferguson spoke to Mission Control.

Cmdr. FERGUSON: After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. And it's come to a final stop.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: After running through the checklist, eventually he was left with nothing else to do.

Cmdr. FERGUSON: We're going to sign off here. And it's going to be hard, but we're going to walk off Atlantis.

Unidentified Man: We understand, Fergie, job well done.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Never again would this ship have a crew. The four astronauts walked under and around Atlantis, shaking hands with NASA workers.

Commander Ferguson said the space shuttles are now headed for museums, but they should still inspire future generations.

Cmdr. FERGUSON: I want that picture of a young six-year-old boy looking up at a space shuttle in a museum and say, you know, Daddy, I want to do something like that when I grow up.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In Houston, well-wishers poured into the flight control room. There was a cake shaped like Atlantis and cigars were passed around - but no one smoked them, like in the days of Apollo.

Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said it was hard to describe the emotion.

Mr. MIKE LEINBACH (Shuttle Launch Director, NASA): I saw grown men had grown women cry today - tears of joy, to be sure. And that was just human emotions came out on the runway today and you couldn't suppress them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The shuttle job losses continue. Tomorrow, over 1,500 people are being laid off. But Leinbach says the workforce has something no one can take away.

Mr. LEINBACH: When I talked to the people, in-between the hugs and pats on the back, the pride that they have of having been part of this amazing program, this amazing event in history.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Crowds of people, many waving American flags, greeted Atlantis after it was slowly towed off the runway. They snapped photos and took one last look so that years from now they could say: I was there when the last space shuttle came home.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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