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Space Shuttle Atlantis Prepares for Final Landing

Space Shuttle Atlantis as it passes under a solar panel of the International Space Station after undocking, July 19, 2011

The four-person crew of the U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis is preparing for what will be the final landing of America's shuttle fleet early Thursday. Atlantis is to set down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where weather conditions look favorable and no delays are expected.

Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Texas woke the astronauts on Wednesday with Aaron Copeland's “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Then a group of NASA workers at Florida's Kennedy Space Center sent a collective message to the crew in orbit.

“Three, two, one . . . Good Morning, Atlantis, Kennedy salutes you! Yeah!”

One of the signs held by the workers read, “We have friends in high places.”

Mission Commander Chris Ferguson replied from the orbiter.

"Hey, good morning, Houston, and to the great folks at the Kennedy Space Center who have cared for these vehicles for the last 30 years - a special good morning to you," said Ferguson.

Later, the crew began routine, final preparations for landing. But this was the last time such routine will be followed, because this flight marks the end of the space shuttle program.

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Atlantis and the other remaining shuttles will be retired from service and put on public display. Atlantis will remain here at the Kennedy Space Center; Endeavor has been assigned to the California Science Center in Los Angeles; Discovery will go to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the prototype shuttle Endeavor will be at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.

Although NASA has long-range plans to use heavy lift rockets to send astronauts to an asteroid and eventually to Mars, the U.S. space agency will have no means of putting people into space for the next several years. Vehicles that can be used to ferry astronauts to low-earth orbit and the International Space Station are being developed by private companies. But until one of them is ready, NASA will send astronauts up on Russian rockets.

The astronauts aboard Atlantis say they feel some sadness, but Commander Fergusson says they are using the occasion of the last shuttle mission to celebrate the achievements of the program during the past 30 years.

During this mission, Atlantis has docked with the International Space Station and delivered a year's worth of food, clothing and other supplies. NASA chose to keep the station well stocked in case there is a delay in the planned delivery of cargo to the orbiting structure by a private space vehicle later this year.