KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--Signaling the beginning of the end for NASA's storied shuttle program, the Endeavour plunged back to Earth today, closing out its 25th and final flight.
The baton is now passed to its sistership, Atlantis, which was hauled to the launching pad a few hours earlier for it July 8 blastoff on the program's final voyage.
With commander Mark Kelly and pilot Gregory Johnson at the controls, Endeavour dropped out of a moonless sky and into the glare of powerful xenon floodlights after a fiery descent from orbit, settling to a ghostly touchdown on runway 15 at 2:34 a.m. EDT.
Barreling down the 300-foot-wide landing strip at more than 200 mph, Johnson deployed a large red-and-white braking parachute, Kelly brought the nose down, and Endeavour coasted to a stop on the runway centerline.
"Houston, Endeavour. Wheels stopped," Kelly radioed in a traditional call to Houston.
"122 million miles flown during 25 challenging space flights, your landing ends a vibrant legacy for this amazing vehicle that will long be remembered," astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore replied from mission control. "Welcome home, Endeavour."
"Thank you, Houston," Kelly said. "You know, the space shuttle is an amazing vehicle, to fly through the atmosphere, hit it at Mach 25, steer through the atmosphere like an airplane, land on a runway. It is really, really an incredible ship."
He thanked "every person who's worked on Endeavour," saying "it's sad to see her land for the last time, but she really has a great legacy."
While engineers and technicians swarmed around the orbiter for post-flight "safing," Kelly, Johnson, European Space Agency flight engineer Roberto Vittori and spacewalkers Michael Fincke, Gregory Chamitoff, and Andrew Feustel doffed their pressure suits and joined senior NASA managers on the runway for a traditional walk-around inspection before departing for crew quarters and reunions with friends and family.
Before leaving the orbiter, Johnson shut down the ship's three hydraulic power units and a moment later, their fiery exhaust plumes flickered out for the last time, a stark reminder the shuttle's flying days are over.
During the course of Endeavour's 16-day mission, Kelly and his crewmates attached a $2 billion cosmic ray detector to the International Space Station, installed a pallet of spare components, staged four spacewalks to conduct needed maintenance, and helped the station crew repair a U.S. oxygen generator and a carbon dioxide scrubber.
Mission duration was 15 days 17 hours 38 minutes and 23 seconds, a voyage spanning 248 complete orbits and 6.5 million miles since blastoff May 16. Over the course of its 25-mission career, Endeavour logged 122,853,853 million miles, 4,671 orbits, and 299 days in space, carrying the first and last U.S. components to the International Space Station.
A few miles from the shuttle runway, a powerful Apollo-era crawler-transporter was slowly moving Atlantis into position atop pad 39A after a six-hour 3.4-mile trip from NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building.
A throng of space center workers, many of them facing layoffs after Atlantis' flight, turned out to witness the last shuttle "rollout," cheering as the shuttle emerged into the light of powerful floodlights around 8:45 p.m. ET yesterday. Atlantis' crew--commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim, and Sandra Magnus--mingled with the crowd and chatted with reporters about the looming end of the shuttle program.
"It's going to be a long time until you see a vehicle roll out to the pad that looks as beautiful as that," Walheim said, pointing toward Atlantis. "How can you beat that? An airplane on the side of a rocket. It's absolutely stunning. So I think we lose a little bit of grace, of beauty, and also a little bit of majesty" when the shuttle fleet is retired.
With Atlantis on its way to the pad, Kelly and his crewmates closed Endeavour's 60-foot-long payload bay doors at 10:45 p.m. Two hours and 45 minutes later, at 1:29 a.m. ET today, Kelly and Johnson carried out a two-minute 38-second firing of the shuttle's orbital maneuvering system rockets, slowing the ship by about 201 mph to drop it out of orbit for an hourlong glide back to Florida.
After a half-hour free fall, Endeavour plunged into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of about 76 miles. A few minutes later, the orbiter entered the zone of peak heating, experiencing temperatures of more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit on its reinforced carbon carbon nose cap and wing leading edge panels.
Approaching Florida from the southwest, Endeavour streaked high above the Yucatan Peninsula, across the Gulf of Mexico, and then over the west coast of Florida above Naples, descending steeply toward the Kennedy Space Center.
Taking over manual control at an altitude of about 50,000 feet, Kelly guided Endeavour through a sweeping 245-degree left overhead turn to line up on runway 15, settling to a tire-smoking touchdown a few moments later.
Over the next few months, Endeavour, like the shuttle Discovery before it, will be decommissioned and prepared for museum display.
Discovery, which completed its last flight in March, is going to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C., while Endeavour is bound for the Los Angeles Science Center. Atlantis will remain in Florida and go on display at the Kennedy Space Center's visitors complex.