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'Mission Complete' for Shuttle Atlantis

The STS- 135 crew stands next space shuttle Atlantis shortly after landing at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 21, 2011

The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis has landed for the final time, marking the end of the shuttle era.

"Nose gear touchdown. Having fired the imagination of a generation, a ship like no other, its place in history secured, the space shuttle pulls into port for the last time, its voyage at an end," the NASA announcer said.

With the landing of the space shuttle Atlantis before sunrise at the Kennedy Space Center, the 30-year-old space shuttle fleet ended its service.

Astronaut Chris Ferguson was the shuttle commander for this 135th and final shuttle journey.

"Mission complete, Houston," he said. "After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it has come to a final stop."

Listen to an interview with VOA Correspondent Greg Flakus reporting from the Kennedy Center Space in Florida

Ferguson was one of four astronauts aboard Atlantis on the resupply mission to the International Space Station.

"You know, the space shuttle has changed the way we view the world, and it has changed the way we view our universe," he said. "It is a lot of emotion today, but one thing is indisputable - America is not going to stop exploring."

Astronauts Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim smiled as they emerged on the runway, where they were greeted by NASA officials, including administrator Charles Bolden.

"We have been exploring since early in our country's history and what Fergie [Commander Ferguson] and his crew did this time was kind of close out this era of our exploration," noted Bolden.

NASA is retiring the space shuttle fleet to focus on developing the next generation of spacecraft that could go beyond low-Earth-orbit to asteroids or Mars.

Space shuttles first lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in 1981. During the past 30 years, two of NASA's five shuttles were destroyed in accidents - Challenger in 1986 about a minute after liftoff; Columbia in 2003 shortly before landing.

The three remaining orbiters that have been to space - Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery - will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center, and museums in California and just outside Washington. A test shuttle that never went into space, Enterprise, will go to a museum in New York.

Ferguson said he hopes children will gaze upon the shuttles in these museums and become inspired to do great things.