Home for good, and looking 'fabulous'
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - How would you look after 120 million miles? Atlantis might appear a little scuffed up to outsiders as it heads into retirement after a quarter-century of spaceflight.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - How would you look after 120 million miles?
Atlantis might appear a little scuffed up to outsiders as it heads into retirement after a quarter-century of spaceflight.
But to the trained eyes of NASA engineers, the ship is still in its prime - a fact that adds to wistful emotions at the space agency as the shuttle program winds down.
Atlantis returned home Wednesday from its 32d and final voyage, the first of three remaining shuttles that are closing out their flying careers. "The legacy of Atlantis, now in the history books," Mission Control announced at touchdown.
About 1,200 guests lined the Kennedy Space Center runway to watch Atlantis glide through a clear morning sky to a flawless landing at the end of a 12-day journey.
NASA employees wore white ribbons with the name Atlantis and the shuttle's picture embossed in gold. Even the lead flight directors came in from Houston for the occasion.
Only two shuttle flights remain - one each by Discovery and Endeavour - before the fleet is retired. Barring a reprieve from the White House, Atlantis will stand by as a rescue ship for the very last shuttle flight, then will go to a museum somewhere.
The shuttle came back "really, really clean," with just a couple of dings in its thermal shielding, said NASA officials who were out on the runway with Atlantis' beaming crew and shuttle workers.
"It's just a beautiful machine to see out on the runway, and we got to see it up close and personal again today," observed launch director Mike Leinbach. "I'm going to hate to see that go away."
Before the 2003 Columbia disaster, shuttles regularly landed with hundreds of nicks and even gouges. Redesigned fuel tanks took care of that problem.
Launch manager Mike Moses noted how often NASA officials now describe a just-returned shuttle as "one of the cleanest we've ever seen."
"That's actually the truth," he said. "Each one is just getting better and better."
The hodgepodge of old and new thermal tiles, combined with the rigors of launch and the heat of reentry, might make the shuttles appear shabbier than they really are.
Pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli said Atlantis looked "just absolutely fabulous" after logging so many miles.
Atlantis - the fourth to fly in NASA's shuttle series, which also included the lost Challenger - is ending its run after spending a total of 294 days in orbit and circling Earth 4,648 times. It has carried 189 astronauts and visited the International Space Station 11 times. It also flew seven times to Russia's old Mir station and once to the Hubble Space Telescope.
The shuttle added 4.8 million more miles during its just-completed trip to the station, for a total of 120,650,907 miles over its lifetime.
As a tribute, the astronauts on the last mission flew a small U.S. flag that had accompanied Atlantis into orbit on its maiden voyage in 1985, as well as a couple of tool bins full of shuttle mementos.
NASA expects to decide by the end of June or July where Atlantis and Endeavour ultimately will end up. Discovery is bound for the Smithsonian Institution.