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Smooth Atlantis landing ends NASA's space shuttle program

CAPE CANAVERAL

Twin sonic booms signaled the close of the 30-year space shuttle era Thursday, ringing loudly as Atlantis glided onto its landing strip and came to its final rest in the darkness.

Although hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Space Coast for Atlantis' final launch on July 8, shuttle landings don't feature the same crowd-pleasing fire and thunder.

So this milestone felt more private, a time for Kennedy Space Center workers to share tears, hugs and reflections. Many will work their last day today.

"It was just a family event," said NASA launch manager Michael Leinbach. "Hard to describe the emotions. … I saw grown men and grown women crying. Tears of joy, to be sure. Human emotions came out on the runway today. You couldn't suppress them."

Shortly after Atlantis landed, NASA managers and other officials walked onto the runway, welcomed the astronauts back to Earth after their 13-day mission and gazed at Atlantis, knowing it was a special moment that would never be repeated.

Later Atlantis was towed and parked near processing buildings where thousands of workers flocked around.

They snapped photos of themselves with the shuttle in the background and wore T-shirts with messages such as "We made history," and "Atlantis: The Grand Finale."

Chemical engineer Sandy Lee, who works with space shuttle tiles, is glad to have a little extra time with her 5-month-old baby but wonders where she will work next.

"It's just like everyone else, bittersweet," she said. "Today's my last day. Tomorrow I process out."

Design engineering supervisor Keith Frisbee was taking pictures of colleagues near Atlantis and enjoying the positives — such as the astronauts' safe return.

When he was hired, managers told him the job would be temporary, and they were right — it lasted only 32 years. His first week on the job, in 1979, he went inside one of the shuttle processing buildings, saw the American flag and "United States" emblazoned on the side of Columbia, and wondered: Am I good enough for this?

He was, but now he's among those looking for work.

"There's a lot of emotions, highs and lows as we give hugs, say goodbyes," said Kennedy Space Center director Robert Cabana.

After landing Atlantis, Navy Capt. Christopher Ferguson, the shuttle's commander, said to shuttle workers: "Thank you for this fantastic vehicle. It performed absolutely wonderfully. Not a glitch."

Ferguson noted that Atlantis will now become a museum piece located at Kennedy. He said he could imagine a young boy looking at it one day in the future and saying, "Daddy, I want to do something like that when I grow up."

He hopes so: "I want our country to do fantastic things like this for the continued future."

In the near term, the United States intends to continue its presence on the orbiting International Space Station but will have to rely on Russian rockets to get there — at a price of $63-million per ride.

However, the agency has contracted with four companies that are developing private spacecraft they hope will be able to take astronauts safely to the station.

For the long term, NASA wants to build a "heavy lifter" rocket and space capsule that will help take astronauts on journeys deeper into the solar system than ever before, such as to an asteroid or Mars.

Although Thursday was a day of reflection on 30 years of history, some used it as a time to look to the future.

Cabana pointed to the commercial space initiative and the space capsule as evidence NASA is pressing on with plans to get back into low Earth orbit, as well as exploring farther into space.

Leinbach, the launch manager, said the space shuttle was an important step in humans' capabilities in space flight, but added, "I believe what we need to do as humans is go colonize elsewhere. … That ought to be our vision."

Smooth Atlantis landing ends NASA's space shuttle program 07/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 22, 2011 7:20am]

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