Atlantis landed safely Thursday morning, completing its final shuttle mission and marking the end to the 30-year U.S. space shuttle program.
The shuttle touched down at 5:57 a.m. ET at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where a record crowd of 2,000 people had gathered to welcome Atlantis and say farewell to the program.
"After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle's earned its place in history," radioed commander Christopher Ferguson. "And it's come to a final stop."
"Job well done, America," replied Mission Control.
Atlantis's crew of four fired the braking rockets early in the morning after its successful 13-day resupply mission to the International Space Station. It was the135th flight in shuttle history.
"The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it's changed the way we view our universe," Ferguson said.
"There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing's indisputable. America's not going to stop exploring.
"Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship, Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end."
Atlantis, the last of NASA's three surviving shuttles to retire, undocked from the International Space Station for the last time on Tuesday morning.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who flew on Atlantis in 1995, said he watched the landing Thursday through a camera that showed him exactly what the commander and pilot saw.
"I actually felt my heart racing a bit," Hadfield said.
"So there is the visceral part of it, but then a great deep long-term pride in that having accomplished something so hard and having done it exactly like we said we would right to the end and doing it so well.
"So it’s that little boy excitement coupled with a very adult satisfaction in having done something over such a long period, so many millions and millions of miles, and having done it so competently and with such class," Hadfield said.
Next year, Hadfield will head back into space, where he will become the first Canadian to command the International Space Station.
To get there, he will ride a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which is expected to be the main vehicle into space for the next few years.
NASA, however, is counting on commercial spacecraft now under development to provide more options to get to the space station in the future. The agency is developing the Orion crew exploration vehicle, designed to take humans beyond Earth's orbit.
Atlantis, which blasted off on its first mission in 1985, will remain at Kennedy Space Center as a museum display.
During Atlantis's final mission, Ferguson and fellow crew Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim delivered enough food, spare parts and other supplies to keep the International Space Station going a full year. The shuttle also carried up a module that will allow the Canadian robot Dextre to test whether it is possible for robots to refuel and repair satellites in space using special tools to interact with parts designed for human hands.
Pierre Jean, Canada's program manager for the International Space Station, said that as he watched the final shuttle landing from the Canadian Space Agency headquarters near Montreal, he was mindful of the fact that the station will continue operating until 2020.
"You temper the sadness of seeing the life of one amazing vehicle come to the end, knowing that there's something in the future."
NASA officials spoke of similar mixed feelings.
Focus on commercial spacecraft
Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said he saw grown men and women crying following Atlantis's return but added they were "tears of joy, to be sure."
"It’s a loss of something that is important to us, but it’s certainly nothing like the loss of a family member," he said. "People will move on and do well."
Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, said the team behind the space shuttle can now focus on enabling commercial spacecraft to launch.
"You have to have change," he said. "And in the austere budget times that we have, we cannot afford to continue to fly the space shuttle and work on those future programs."
Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's space operations, said NASA expects commercial launches from Kennedy Space Center in 2015 or 2016.
Leinbach said the shuttle was an evolutionary step in space travel, and it's time to look to the future.
"I believe we need to have a vision as a being that eventually we need to go colonize elsewhere."
In the meantime, he said, members of the shuttle team are very proud of their achievements.
"No one can take that away from us."