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Space shuttle Atlantis landed back on Earth right on time around 6am this morning. It brought to a close America’s 30-year orbiter program and it was a bitter sweet moment for everyone in Central Florida who heard the sonic booms for the final time.

The vehicle looked majestic as it swept into the Kennedy Space Center, its wheels touching the runway just before the local sunrise.

Among their achievements, NASA’s space shuttles were instrumental in building the space station, and were used to launch the Hubble telescope.

“The space shuttle changed the way we view the world and it changed the way we view the Universe,” said commander Chris Ferguson on landing. “There’s a lot of emotion today but one thing’s indisputable: America’s not going to stop exploring,” he radioed to mission control.

Retirement of Nasa’s iconic shuttle fleet was ordered by the US government, in part due to the high cost of maintaining the ships and for the first time in nearly five decades it leaves the country with no means of putting astronauts in orbit.

The US space agency’s intention is to invite the private sector to provide it with space transport services, and a number of commercial ventures already have crew ships in development but these are unlikely to be ready to fly for at least three or four years. In the interim, Nasa will rely on the Russians to ferry its people to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

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Despite the dark skies over Florida’s Space Coast, large crowds came out to try to glimpse Atlantis as it made its historic return from orbit. Two thousand people were gathered at the landing strip itself, but even in Texas, where mission control is sited, they mingled outside the gates of the Johnson Space Center.

The de-orbit track brought Atlantis across central Florida and the Titusville-Mims area before a hard bank to the left put the vehicle on a line to Runway 15 at Kennedy.

Commander Ferguson, a veteran of two previous shuttle missions was at the controls, with his pilot Doug Hurley alongside him. Mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim were sitting directly behind on the flightdeck.

Their ship’s rear wheels touched the ground at 0556 local time (0956 GMT; 1056 BST), and the vehicle was stationary under a minute later. It concluded a 13-day re-supply mission to the ISS.

The return of Atlantis marked a moment of high emotion for Florida’s Space Coast – not least because it will trigger a big lay-off of contractor staff. More than 3,000 people involved in shuttle operations will  lose their jobs this week.

Mindful of this, Nasa Administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden was quick to thank programme staff in the speeches that followed the landing.

“I want everybody who was involved in this to feel incredibly proud of what you did and what your role was,” he said. “Like me, [the crew of Atlantis] got to do the flying but we owe an incredible debt of gratitude to the thousands, literally tens of thousands, of folks all around the country who made all this possible.”

The orbiter programme does not officially end for a month, but even then it is likely to take a couple of years to close all activities, such as the archiving of decades of shuttle engineering data.

For Atlantis, its retirement will be spent as a static display at the Kennedy visitor complex.

The Discovery and Endeavour shuttles, which made their final flights earlier this year, will go to the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia and the California Science Center in Los Angeles, respectively.

Nasa hopes to invest money saved from shuttle operations in a new spaceship and rocket that can take humans beyond the ISS to destinations such as the Moon, asteroids and Mars. The conical ship, known as Orion, has already been defined and is in an advanced stage of development.

So there we have it, the end of an era. Very much a bittersweet day.

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