After 30 years of both making history and hastening the future, NASA's iconic space shuttle fleet is now officially retired, with its last remaining member gliding safely back to Earth just before dawn this morning. Atlantis triggered two sonic booms as it streaked down from space, finally landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. "It's going to be hard, but we're going to walk off Atlantis," commander Chris Ferguson told mission controllers as the crew left the shuttle one last time.

The mood on the ground was "electric, both sad and triumphant," Space.com reports, as the finality sank in that this really was the last shuttle flight. While the final launch of Atlantis on July 8 was dramatic, there was still the business of actually flying to the International Space Station, completing the mission and returning home. Now that Atlantis has landed, NASA officials, astronauts and people around the world are left with an abrupt realization that it's finally over. "Mission complete, Houston," Ferguson radioed to Mission Control after touching down. "After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle found its place in history, and it's come to a final stop." The folks at Mission Control were even more effusive. "We copy your wheels stop and we'll take this opportunity to congratulate you, Atlantis, as well as the thousands of passionate individuals across this great spacefaring nation who truly empowered this incredible spacecraft, which for three decades has inspired millions around the globe," capcom Barry Wilmore responded from Mission Control. "Job well done, America."

The shuttles' retirement has drawn lots of questions about NASA's future, and has also caused upheaval not just on Florida's Space Coast, but in places as far-ranging as California, Texas and Alabama. For today, though, the focus is on all the incredible things the shuttle program accomplished. From building the ISS and launching the Hubble Space Telescope to simply making manned space flight seem routine, "your work here has made America and the world a better place," flight director Tony Ceccacci told controllers in Houston. As Ferguson added, this isn't the end of NASA's wanderlust. "There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing is indisputable: America is not going to stop exploring," he said after landing. "Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end. God bless all of you. God bless the United States of America."

For more about NASA's past and future, check out this interactive look at 50 years of manned space flight and this report on where the U.S. space program will go next.

(Sources: CNN, Space.com, USA Today, Washington Post, Reuters)


A stifling "heat dome" that's been roasting the central U.S. for days is now expanding east, AccuWeather reports, pushing temperatures well into the 90s and 100s across much of the Plains, Midwest and Eastern Seaboard. The average U.S. temperature today and Friday will be hotter than anytime since 1950, according to the National Weather Service. At least 22 people have already died due to the extreme heat and humidity, and with no relief in sight, experts say more lives could be lost this week as the mercury rises.

"The worst part of this heat wave is that lows at night will only drop into the 80s due to the extremely high humidity," explains AccuWeather meteorologist Henry Margusity. "This means there will be no time for people to cool off." About 141 million people across the U.S. are now under heat advisories and warnings, CNN reports, with conditions expected to worsen into the weekend. The heat wave's peak will arrive Friday on the East Coast, with highs reaching the 90s in Boston and New York, and likely topping 100 degrees in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. That could break Philly's half-century-old record of 100 degrees, AccuWeather reports, set in 1957. The heat index in D.C. is forecast to hit 110 degrees today and 115 Friday, but even without the added humidity, the nation's capital could tie a record from 1926 if it reaches 103 Friday as expected.

All this blistering heat means people across the country will be blasting their air-conditioning, the AP points out, which is already putting a heavy strain on the U.S. power grid. Isolated power outages are possible, but utilities say they're prepared and don't expect any widespread blackouts. "These are the days everyone wants to have their ACs on, their computers going while they watch TV," one Midwestern transmission grid operator tells the AP. "These are the days we get ready for." Triple-digit temperatures will likely persist across the Eastern U.S. through Saturday, the NWS reports, before finally cooling off slightly — to the mid-90s — by Sunday.

(Sources: National Weather Service, AccuWeather, CNN, Associated Press)


As much as the U.S. is suffering from historic heat and droughts this summer, the country's plight pales in comparison to what's happening in Somalia. On Wednesday, the U.N. announced Somalia's ongoing food crisis has escalated into a famine, fueled by one of East Africa's worst droughts in 60 years as well as armed conflict among militant groups. Tens of thousands of Somalis have died in recent months from causes related to malnutrition, according to the U.N., and millions more are now on the brink of starvation.

"If we don't act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious diseases," Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, tells CBS News. "We still do not have all the resources for food, clean water, shelter and health services to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalia." Nearly half of the country's population is now in crisis, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told U.N. delegates Wednesday, adding that a total of $1.6 billion will be needed to help those 3.7 million people. About $300 million of that is needed in the next two months, he said, merely to ensure an "adequate response." While conditions are worst in Somalia — due partly to violent attacks and rejection of foreign aid by Islamist militants — more than 11.3 million people need help due to drought and food shortages across East Africa, according to the U.N. World Food Program.

The U.N. defines a famine as when two adults or four children per 10,000 people die of hunger per day, and when a third of children are acutely malnourished. As CBS News reports, six people are dying daily in some parts of Somalia, and more than half of children are malnourished. The drought has killed up to 90 percent of livestock in some regions, according to Oxfam, and the prices of staple foods have risen 270 percent in the past year. "There is no time to waste if we are to avoid massive loss of life," Oxfam regional director Fran Equiza says in a statement. "We must not stand by and watch this tragedy unfold before our eyes. The world has been slow to recognize the severity of this crisis, but there is no longer any excuse for inaction."

(Sources: New York Times, CBS News)


In a dramatic gesture that sent a message to poachers worldwide, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki personally set fire to more than five tons of confiscated elephant ivory Wednesday, incinerating a pile of tusks and trinkets valued at nearly $16.2 million on the black market. Kibaki almost burned himself as he lit the stack of 335 tusks and 41,000 carved ivory trinkets, the Guardian reports, but that didn't dim his determination to snuff out the illegal ivory trade.

"Through the disposal of contraband ivory, we seek to formally demonstrate to the world our determination to eliminate all forms of illegal trade in ivory," Kibaki told several hundred people gathered at a rural Kenya Wildlife Service training facility. "We must all appreciate the negative effects of illegal trade to our national economies. We cannot afford to sit back and allow criminal networks to destroy our common future." Kibaki was continuing a tradition in Kenya, where officials first burned a mound of ivory in 1989 as a global alarm about the decline of elephant populations due to poaching. The giant mammals have since rebounded slightly in Kenya, but conservationists warn a "second elephant crisis" is now coming, the Guardian reports, as China's middle class develops a taste for their ivory tusks.

About 500,000 elephants live across Africa, a significant drop from the continent's 1.3 million pachyderms in the 1970s. Some 37,000 of those live in Kenya, an improvement from the 16,000 the country had in the late '80s, but still well below its historical numbers. Iain Douglas-Hamilton of the conservation group Save the Elephants says it's important for poachers — and potential customers — to see $16 million worth of ivory go up in smoke. "This is a clear signal that it's worth a lot more money than you could get on the market. We have to stop the buying if we want to stop the killing," Douglas-Hamilton tells the London Independent. "I'm not totally pessimistic. I think the Chinese can be converted."

(Sources: Guardian, London Independent, MSNBC)


Earthquake devastates ancient Greece and Egypt, an Amazon activist is murdered in Brazil, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Atlantis landing at Kennedy Space Center on July 21): NASA

Photo (sun's rays stretching over the horizon): Jupiter Images

Photo (food line in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 6): ZUMA Press

Photo (ivory fire in Kenya on July 20): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Thurs. 7/21/2011
Space shuttle era ends, heat wave bakes U.S., Kenya burns ivory, and more.