By FLORIDA TODAY
Atlantis carried its four astronauts home today to Kennedy Space Center, bringing a safe end to three decades of shuttle operations.
"Our ship Atlantis, thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end," Commander Chris Ferguson said after the orbiter touched down on-time at 5:56 a.m. at the oceanside spaceport.
It was a flawless return; the pre-dawn weather perfect as Atlantis became the final orbiter to make a supersonic slide back to Earth, heralded by its trademark twin sonic booms. And, in a special twist, minutes before Atlantis landed, the International Space Station - largely built thanks to the shuttle fleet - passed brightly over KSC.
This historic day began with a rendition of "God Bless America" to wake the crew of four, which also included pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
Atlantis had delivered 8,200 pounds of food and spare parts to the orbiting outpost to keep it stocked and fully staffed through next year, in case the commercial companies expected to begin cargo deliveries fall behind schedule.
The shuttle's return marks a sad day on the Space Coast, where an estimated 7,000 shuttle jobs will have disappeared with the program's retirement. Some 1,500 United Space Alliance workers, the main shuttle contractor, are expected to turn in their badges Friday.
"It’s going to be tough," Ferguson had said ahead of landing . ¶
"It’s going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years," he said. "But we’re going to try to keep it upbeat. We’re going to try to keep it light, and we’re going to try to make it a celebration of the tremendous crowning achievements over the last 30 years." ¶