21 Jul 2011

Atlantis touches down for last time

10:54 pm on 21 July 2011

The space shuttle Atlantis has made its final landing safely at Cape Canaveral in Florida, ending the 30-year NASA shuttle programme.

The vehicle swept into the Kennedy Space Center, its wheels touching the runway just before sunrise, the BBC reports.

"The space shuttle changed the way we view the world and it changed the way we view the Universe," Commander Chris Ferguson said on landing. "There's a lot of emotion today but one thing's indisputable: America's not going to stop exploring."

Some 135 flights have been undertaken by five shuttles since the first mission in 1981.

Two of the five shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were lost in accidents - killing 14 astronauts.

The shuttles were instrumental in building the space station, and were used to launch the Hubble telescope.

The American government ordered the retirement of the fleet, particularly because of the high maintenance costs, the BBC reports.

The US space agency intends to switch to space 'taxis', with crew ships already in development by a number of commercial ventures. In the interim, Nasa will rely on the Russians to ferry its people to and from the International Space Station.