NASA's Space Shuttle program is now history

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida

Hundreds gathered early this morning at florida's kennedy space center to welcome home atlantis and its crew-- it was a historic and bittersweet arrival.

Just before dawn the space shuttle atlantis glided back down to earth. The smooth landing marked the end of an era.

"The space shuttle has earned its place in history and it's come to a final stop. The space shuttle's changed the way we view the world and it's changed the way we view our universe... One thing's indisputable: America's not going to stop exploring."

After 135 missions, this was the american shuttle program's final flight.

"I think of the past crews that have sat here and shared a meal and think about 'wow, this is the last time,'" said Mission Specialist Rex Walheim.

The shuttle era began in April 1981 with the launch of Columbia. Over the next three decades there was triumph and tragedy.

The business of short-distance space travel will now be in the hands of private companies. NASA will turn its focus to deep-space exploration -- beyond the moon.

"It is a much better value for the taxpayer. It takes advantage of an industry and allows them to put their creative and innovative spirit into what they do, while NASA does the cutting edge hard things," said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

Atlantis has flown 33 missions, traveling more than 120-million miles. It's final trip was a bittersweet moment for the close knit NASA community.

"I don't think you'd be human if you didn't feel something," said NASA Entry Flight Director Tony Ceccacci.

"The future is very bright but at the moment it's very somber because we are sayin good bye to an old friend," said Shuttle Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson.

The crew of Atlantis left something behind at the International Space Station: a small U.S. flag that flew on the first shuttle voyage in 1981. The flag will be the prize for the first company that brings Americans back to the station.

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