CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The space shuttle Atlantis landed in Florida on Wednesday, capping a 12-day mission to deliver a new module to the International Space Station before NASA retires the fleet after two more flights.
Circling high over the Kennedy Space Center to burn off speed, commander Ken Ham gently nosed the 100-ton ship toward a landing strip three miles away from where he and five crewmates blasted off on May 14 to begin NASA’s 132nd shuttle mission.
Atlantis touched down at 8:48 a.m. EDT (1248 GMT), completing a 4.9 million-mile (7.9-million-kilometer) journey and its 32nd and final planned flight. A proposal to add an extra supply run to the station on Atlantis next year is pending.
“If this does turn out to be the last flight of Atlantis, it’s going out at the top of its game,” said Kennedy Space Center spokesman George Diller.
NASA plans to fly each of its remaining shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour, once more this year to complete assembly and outfitting of the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that has been under construction for 12 years.
The shuttles began flying in 1981 and are being retired due to cost concerns, safety issues and their inability to travel beyond the space station’s orbit.
President Barack Obama wants to cancel a follow-on program to develop rockets and capsules aimed at returning U.S. astronauts to the moon and instead develop new technologies for travel farther from Earth. The proposal, which is pending before Congress, is controversial.
“The shuttles are not old. They’re in fantastic shape. They fly perfectly and they do exactly what we need them to. We just don’t have the budget to continue to keep doing that, plus more, plus expand beyond low-Earth orbit, so at some point you just have to balance your book and decide what to do next. That’s the reality,” said Mike Moses, a shuttle program manager.
During a week-long stay at the station, Ham, pilot Dominic “Tony” Antonelli, spacewalkers Garrett Reisman, Steve Bowen and Michael Good and astronaut Piers Sellers delivered and installed a Russian docking and research laboratory, six huge batteries for the station’s solar power system, a spare communications antenna and a work platform for the station’s Canadian-built crane.
Before being turned over to a museum, Atlantis will be prepared as an emergency rescue ship for the last shuttle crew.
NASA is evaluating proposals from museums and science centers wanting to display Atlantis and Endeavour. Discovery, which is scheduled to make its last flight in September, is promised to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Endeavour, which will carry the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector to the space station, is scheduled to be the program’s finale in November.
Editing by Jane Sutton and Sandra Maler
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