At a news conference after the landing, the associate administrator for space operations, William H. Gerstenmaier, who has worked on the shuttle since the 1970s, said it was “time to move on and focus on the future.”
“Huge growth and huge improvements come from change,” he said. “We can’t afford to fly the space shuttle and [also] do other ambitious missions.”
Gerstenmaier said human space exploration and research will surely remain central to the agency’s mission. The international space station is complete and ready to begin long-delayed scientific work; plans are underway for commercial space companies to service it relatively soon. In addition, he said, NASA is working with Congress for the money and direction for building a heavy lift rocket to explore outer space.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden set a similar tone shortly after touchdown — saying that the program was responsible for a long number of “firsts,” but also focusing on the frontiers that have yet to be conquered.
“Children who dream of being astronauts today may not fly on the space shuttle . . . but, one day, they may walk on Mars,” Bolden said. “The future belongs to us. And just like those who came before us, we have an obligation to set an ambitious course and take an inspired nation along for the journey.”
The shuttle Atlantis and its four crew members touched down in Florida at 5:56 a.m., shortly before sunrise, after a 13-day mission to the international space station, the space laboratory that could never have been built without the huge cargo-carrying capacity of the shuttle.
“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,” radioed commander Christopher Ferguson.
“Job well done, America,” said mission control.
Although the ballooning cost of the shuttle — now at about $1 billion per launch — and the two shuttle disasters have somewhat tarnished its image and legacy, its achievements are real. It is the only winged vehicle to orbit in space, it traveled at speeds of up to 17,500 mph and it withstood temperatures of as much as 3,000 degrees on reentry.
It was also used to launch the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories and made five trips to the Hubble to repair and upgrade it. In addition, it made possible a level of international cooperation in space never seen before, especially between the United States and Russia.
At the mid-morning news conference, shuttle program director Mike Leinbach said the landing was very emotional, with “grown men and women crying on the runway.” Leinbach said there were tears of joy for the safe return of Atlantis and completion of the shuttle mission, but also tears of sadness, since the program was over and many people would be out of work.