CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - The space shuttle Atlantis glided home through a clear moonlit sky on Thursday to complete a 13-day cargo run to the International Space Station and a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle program.
Commander Chris Ferguson gently steered the 100-ton spaceship high overhead, then nose-dived toward the swamp-surrounded landing strip at the Kennedy Space Center, a few miles from where Atlantis will go on display as a museum piece.
Double sonic booms shattered the predawn silence around the space center, the last time residents will hear the distinctive sound of a shuttle coming home.
Ferguson eased Atlantis onto the runway at 5:57 a.m. EDT, ending a 5.2 million-mile journey and closing a key chapter in human space flight history.
"Mission complete, Houston," Ferguson radioed to Mission Control.
Astronaut Barry Wilmore from Mission Control answered back, "We'll take this opportunity to congratulate you Atlantis, as well as the thousands of passionate individuals across this great space-faring nation who truly empowered this incredible spacecraft, which for three decades has inspired millions around the globe."
Atlantis' return from the 135th shuttle mission capped a 30-year program that made spaceflight appear routine, despite two fatal accidents that killed 14 astronauts and destroyed two of NASA's five spaceships.
The last accident investigation board recommended the shuttles be retired after construction was finished on the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations. That milestone was reached this year, leaving the orbiting research station as the shuttle program's crowning legacy.
Details of a follow-on program are still pending, but the objective is to build new spaceships that can travel beyond the station's 250-mile orbit and send astronauts to the moon, asteroids and other destinations in deep space.
The final shuttle crew included just four astronauts — Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, flight engineer Rex Walheim and mission specialist Sandy Magnus — rather than the typical six or seven astronauts, a precaution in case Atlantis was too damaged to safely attempt the return to Earth. With no more shuttles available for a rescue, NASA's backup plan was to rely on the smaller Russian Soyuz capsules.
At Cape Canaveral, 2,000 workers, journalists and VIPs waited by the runway to cheer the shuttle landing and greet the "final four" astronauts as they emerged from their ship.
"The things that you've done will set us up for exploration of the future," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told them.
Ferguson thanked the thousands of workers involved in the program over the years and said he hoped "this fantastic vehicle" would inspire a new generation of space explorers.
"Although we got to take the ride, we sure hope that everybody who has ever worked or touched or looked at or envied or admired a space shuttle was able to take just a little part of the journey with us," Ferguson said.
Thousands more employees gathered with their families to watch the landing on a giant television at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, home of Mission Control and NASA's main astronaut training facility. As the shuttle touched down, a cheer arose through the crowd that gathered outside the center's headquarters building.
But now that Atlantis is home, 3,200 of the shuttle program's 5,500 contract workers will lose their jobs on Friday. Within about a month, the contract workforce that totaled about 16,000 five years ago will tail off to about 1,000 who will oversee the transfer of Atlantis and sister ships Discovery and Endeavour to museums.
The shuttles' retirement opens the door for a new commercial space transportation industry, with NASA relying on U.S. firms to deliver cargo to the station starting next year and to fly its astronauts there by about 2015.
Until space taxis are available, Russia will take on the job of flying crews to the station, at a cost of more than $50 million per person.
The primary goal of Atlantis' flight was to deliver a year's worth of supplies to the station in case NASA's newly hired cargo suppliers, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp, encounter delays preparing their new vehicles for flight.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton at Cape Canaveral and Chris Baltimore in Houston; editing by Vicki Allen)