Atlantis lands safely, ending US shuttle missions
Shuttle lifted off July 8
Soaring across the predawn haze, Atlantis returned to Earth in a fiery plume early Thursday -- capping a 30-year program that saw hundreds of astronauts go into space.
The landing at 5:57 a.m. ET went off without a hitch.
But it marked a sentimental finish for the four astronauts, who woke up to "God Bless America" on their final morning in space.
"This one was dedicated to all the men and women who have worked for the space shuttle program in the past three decades," NASA said.
Atlantis' landing means the United States has no way to lift humans into space for the first time in decades, leaving Russia as the only option to ferry American astronauts to orbit.
The crew on the mission known as STS-135 relished their final hours in space as they discussed their next frontier in flight.
"What we're going to see in the next few years is a very broadening horizon," shuttle commander Chris Ferguson told CNN's Ali Velshi hundreds of miles above Earth. "What we'll do is we'll turn over the reins of that business to commercial partners."
Atlantis mission specialist Rex Walheim said he hopes the end of the program marks the beginning of more flight opportunities.
"I think it's going to open up a new era of space flight," Walheim said. "We want to take that next step -- get access to Earth orbit cheaper and more frequent. We can do that by partnering with our commercial partners, and that will allow NASA to really focus on the exploration," such as going beyond the Earth's orbit or to asteroids and Mars.
Atlantis lifted off July 8 on NASA's final space shuttle mission.
The first shuttle, Columbia, blasted off in April 1981. Since then, space shuttle crews have fixed satellites, performed scientific studies, and ferried materials and people to International Space Station Alpha, a football field-sized construction project in orbit.
NASA has sent five space shuttles on a total of 135 missions.
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