A safe landing, a sentimental ending
Soaring across the predawn haze, the US space shuttle Atlantis glided back to Earth early Thursday - capping a 30-year NASA program that saw hundreds of astronauts go into space.
The landing at 5:57 a.m. ET went off without a hitch at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
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.
"I saw grown men and grown women crying today," said Mike Leinbach, space shuttle launch director. "Tears of joy, to be sure ... human emotions came out on the runway today. You couldn't suppress them."
The first shuttle, Columbia, blasted off on STS-1 April 12, 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. The shuttle program has sent 355 people from 16 countries to space, with five space shuttles on a total of 135 missions.
Photo courtesy of NASA.