Space Shuttle Endeavour Makes Historic Final Return to Earth

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Endeavour and its six astronauts returned to Earth early Wednesday, closing out the next-to-last mission in NASA’s 30-year program with a safe middle-of-the-night landing.

Endeavour glided down onto the runway one 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, wounded 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. He waited hours before calling her, so he wouldn’t wake her up.

Endeavour, the youngest of the shuttles with 123 million miles over 25 flights, is now bound for a museum in California, shipping out early next year.

“Your landing ends a vibrant legacy for this amazing vehicle that will long be remembered,” Mission Control told Kelly and his crewmates, who wrapped up U.S. construction at the International Space Station during the mission.

“It’s sad to see her land for the last time,” Kelly replied, “but she really has a great legacy.”

Thousands jammed Kennedy Space Center a few hours earlier to see Atlantis make its way to the launch pad, the last such trek ever by a shuttle. Employees and their families lined the route Tuesday night as Atlantis crept out of the Vehicle Assembly Building a little after sunset, bathed in xenon lights.

“The show pretty much tells itself,” Atlantis’ commander, Christopher Ferguson, said as he waved toward his ship. “We’re going to look upon this final mission as a celebration of all that the space shuttle has accomplished over its 30-year life span.”

Bright lights also illuminated the landing strip for Kelly, who made the 25th night landing out of a total of 134 shuttle flights.

The Associated Press