Space shuttle Endeavour and its six astronauts returned to Earth on Wednesday, closing out the next-to-last mission in NASA’s 30-year program with a safe middle-of-the-night landing.
Endeavour touched down on the runway a final time under the cover of darkness, just as Atlantis, the last shuttle bound for space, arrived at the launch pad for the grand finale in five weeks.
Commander Mark Kelly _ whose wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, remained behind at her rehab center in Houston _ brought Endeavour to a stop before hundreds of onlookers that included the four Atlantis astronauts who will take flight in July.
“22 million miles flown during 25 challenging spaceflights,” Mission Control told Kelly and his crewmates, who wrapped up U.S. construction at the International Space Station.
A considerably bigger crowd gathered a few hours earlier to see Atlantis make its way to the launch pad, the last such trek ever by a shuttle. Thousands of Kennedy Space Center workers and their families lined the route Tuesday night as Atlantis crept out of the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building a little after sunset, bathed in xenon lights.
The Endeavour astronauts _ all experienced spacemen _ departed the 220-mile-high outpost
over the weekend, after adding the finishing touches. They installed a $2 billion cosmic ray detector, an extension beam and a platform full of spare parts, enough to keep the station operating in the shuttle-less decade ahead.
Their flight lasted 16 days and, with a series of four spacewalks, completed NASA’s role in the space station construction effort that began more than 12 years ago.
Endeavour is the second shuttle to be retired. It ultimately will be at the California Science
Center in Los Angeles.
Atlantis will remain at Kennedy Space Center as a tourist stop, following one last supply run to the space station. Liftoff is set for July 8.
NASA is leaving the Earth-to-orbit business behind to focus on expeditions to asteroids and Mars. Private companies hope to pick up the slack for cargo and crew hauls to the space station. But it will be a while following Atlantis’ upcoming flight _ at least three years, by one business’ estimate _ before astronauts ride on American rockets again.