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Space Shuttle Era Closes with Atlantis' Landing

NASA workers escort space shuttle Atlantis as it is towed to the Orbiter Processing Facility for decommissioning at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 21, 2011

The Space Shuttle Atlantis and its four-person crew landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida just before dawn, bringing to a close a program that began in 1981 and leaving the United States temporarily with no vehicle to transport astronauts into space. It was a day of mixed emotions for people who gathered there to witness the last landing.

As thousands of people along the central-Florida Atlantic Ocean coastline huddled in the pre-dawn darkness to watch, Atlantis came in from the southwest, a small spark of light in the dark sky. NASA commentator Rob Navias announced the end of the mission and the space shuttle program.

NAVIAS: "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."

Hundreds of people gathered at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center to watch the shuttle return. But many visitors expressed uneasiness with the decision to end the space shuttle program before any other vehicle has been developed to replace it. Tony Diaz, who rode his motorcycle up from Miami to watch the landing, is one of the disgruntled space enthusiasts.

"I am really not very happy with what they have done to the space program ... because we are leaders and the United States should always be up there in space," said Diaz.

Maria, who came with her family from Dallas, Texas, regrets that her children will never be able to see another shuttle mission. "It is pretty sad that this is the last time kids will be able to experience something like this," she said.

Private companies are working on such vehicles, but it could be several years before one is ready to take astronauts into orbit. Plans for eventual missions to an asteroid and to Mars could be decades away. But Daytona Beach, Florida resident Rob Hansen is more optimistic.

"We are moving on to privatizing this kind of operation and NASA is going to move on to exploration deeper out, so I think that will work out in the long run," noted Hansen.

Among the people with the strongest opinions are hundreds of NASA employees who are losing their jobs as the space shuttle program ends. Jonathan Miller, who works with the Johnson Space Center's Extra-Vehicular Activity Office in Houston and came here to see the last landing, says his concern goes well beyond the issue of job losses.

"The future of human space flight is critical to this nation as the leader in space and we are nervous that some of that leadership is lost," said Miller. "There is 30 years of momentum behind the shuttle program and it has just come to an end, moments ago."

The space shuttle Atlantis will remain here at the Kennedy Space Center, where it will eventually go on public display. The other three shuttles are being sent to museums and science centers in other parts of the country so that Americans will be able to see and experience part of the U.S. space program's history as they await its next step in space exploration.

In Photos: Highlights of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program