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Atlantis' landing wraps up NASA shuttle program

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

LAST UPDATED: 4:44 a.m. HST, Jul 22, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. » The space shuttle era officially ended early Thursday morning as Atlantis touched down under a cloudless and star-spangled sky at Kennedy Space Center.

After two signature sonic booms, the spacecraft seemed to suddenly drop out of the darkness on the 3-mile runway, completing its long glide home from orbit precisely on the mark at 5:57 a.m. EDT.

The safe return of a shuttle and its crew from a dangerous journey is always a cause for celebration, but this one — the final landing after 135 missions spanning 30 years — was bittersweet.

The next mission for Atlantis will be as a tourist attraction. America's astronaut corps will be consigned to hitching rides aboard Russian rockets, at least for the next few years until private companies prove they can safely fly in space. And another 2,300 workers at the space center will get pink slips within the week, only the latest in continuing waves of layoffs expected that will eventually add up to some 8,000 lost jobs for Florida's Space Coast.

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