Atlantis, the last of the U.S. shuttles to travel in space, landed at the Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. on Thursday morning. Less than a minute latter, the shuttle stopped rolling. That moment marked the official end of the nation's more than three-decade adventure in shuttle space travel. As was the case over that era, the event was marked by exhilaration and tears.
"Mission complete, Houston," commander Christopher Ferguson radioed from the space center landing strip. "After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it's come to a final stop."
"Job well done, America," Mission Control replied.
Yes, the job was well done. Atlantis performed flawlessly on its last flight, a multimillion-mile journey undertaken to deliver 8,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station. And yes, NASA's workhorse shuttles -- the agency's longest-running space flight program -- did yeoman work on 135 missions.
The shuttle fleet logged 542 million miles and circled the Earth 21,152 times. The spacecraft transported 355 people from 16 countries into space. The shuttles and their crews played major roles in scientific advances in many fields, from astronomy to medicine. In total, the shuttles spent almost four years -- 1,333 days -- in space. Obviously, there was much to celebrate and to commemorate on Thursday.
There was reason for tears, too. Many people have spent their careers in the shuttle programs. Employment for some ends shortly. Layoffs likely will begin within days. That does not diminish the contributions of the men and women whose skill and knowledge contributed directly to the success over the years. "I saw grown men and women cry today," one worker said Friday. There's no shame in that understandable emotion.
Tears were shed, too, in years past when two of the shuttles -- Challenger and Columbia -- were lost. Fourteen men and women died in those disasters, but their deaths steeled the nation and hardened its resolve to continue to explore space.
That resolve is now in jeopardy. The United States' future role in space is uncertain.
Spacecraft from Europe, Russia and Japan will ferry supplies to the space station now. Commercial companies will take over the U.S. role, though there remains concern about their ability to do so. It's a far cry from the time when the United States was the leader in space exploration.
NASA will continue to explore space, but with unmanned vehicles. There is discussion about future travel to Mars or the asteroids, but the rockets that will take Americans there have yet to be designed, And there are questions about the nation's continued ability and willingness to pay for space exploration.
Truth is, the nation can not afford to fully abandon its manned space programs, or surrender the leadership and knowledge that spring from such programs. Too much remains to be learned. Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis are potent reminders of that -- and of the myriad challenges presented by human space exploration.