Atlantis and four astronauts returned from the International Space Station in triumph on Thursday, bringing an end to NASA's 30-year shuttle journey with one last, rousing touchdown that drew cheers and tears.
A record crowd of 2,000 gathered near the landing strip, thousands more packed the space center and countless others watched history unfold from afar as NASA's longest-running spaceflight program came to a close.
"After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle's earned its place in history. And it's come to a final stop," commander Christopher Ferguson radioed after Atlantis glided through the ghostly twilight and landed on the runway.
"Job well done, America," replied Mission Control.
The pre-dawn landing came 30 years and three months after the very first shuttle flight in 1981. It will be another three to five years at best before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil, with private companies gearing up to seize the Earth-to-orbit-and-back baton from NASA.
Image: In this image provided by NASA, space shuttle Atlantis touches down at Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, completing its 13-day mission to the International Space Station and the final flight of the Space Shuttle Program, on Thursday, July 21, 2011. (Photographs copyright PTI)