CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- It was a beautiful, bittersweet homecoming. Right on time, at 8:48 a.m. Wednesday, the space shuttle Atlantis cut through a clear spring sky, banked hard to the right, and made a picture-perfect landing on runway 33 at Kennedy Space Center.
All six astronauts on board -- mission commander Ken Ham, pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli and mission specialists Garrett Reisman, Piers Sellers, Stephen Bowen and Michael Good-- were safe and sound and glad to be back home. It was their last shuttle flight. Some likely will get trips back to the international space station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft or maybe a new generation of U.S. commercial rockets that NASA might hire as space taxis.
Ham thanked Mission Control in Houston for the landing support and said it was time to put Atlantis "back in the barn for a little bit."
But for Atlantis, the second oldest of NASA's surviving orbiter fleet, the prospect of further trips into orbit, circling the Earth, is unlikely. Unless the space shuttle program gets some kind of political reprieve in coming months from Congress or the White House, the touchdown marks the last time that Atlantis will ever descend from the heavens back to Earth.
Wednesday's landing marked the true beginning of the end of three decades of the space shuttle flight. With Atlantis back on the ground only two more missions remain before NASA wraps up the program and doles out the shuttles to museums. Next up is Discovery in September and Endeavour later in the fall or early next year.
President Barack Obama's proposal for NASA's future post-shuttle is for new technology development and launch vehicles aimed at sending astronauts to an asteroid or Mars.
While the launch of Atlantis 12 days ago set the first of the final three shuttle flights in motion, the fact that the beloved program is heading toward the finish line was driven home by the landing. It is the bookend of a career; the end of Atlantis' 25-year adventure of 32 launches, 300 days in space and 120 million miles traveled.
Its trip to the Hubble Space Telescope in May last year is widely considered the last of the great space shuttle missions. Atlantis carried out the fifth and final servicing mission to the telescope, giving it years more life to search the mysteries of the universe.