Science & Environment

Atlantis shuttle lands at Kennedy

The Atlantis shuttle has landed at the Kennedy Space Center after what looks to have been its final mission.

The vehicle touched down on runway 33 at the Florida spaceport at 0848 local time (1248 GMT).

Atlantis, with its six-person crew, has just delivered a Russian mini-module and spare equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).

The orbiters are due to be retired this year, and just two more outings are planned - for Discovery and Endeavour.

"That looked pretty sweet," Mission Control radioed Atlantis commander Ken "Hock" Ham after the wheels of the orbiter had come to a stop.

"That was a suiting end to an incredible mission. I'm sure the station crew-members hated to see you leave, but we're glad to have you back. You guys executed [the mission] flawlessly and not only that, you had a great time doing it."

Once the crew had disembarked, Commander Ham said: "Atlantis is an incredible ship. She was absolutely perfect through this entire mission."

The ship will not go straight to a museum. It will instead go back to the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy.

There, it will be prepared as a standby shuttle ready to go and rescue the astronauts on the remaining flights should they get into trouble.

And the US space agency (Nasa) has also not excluded the possibility that it could yet fly out this standby Atlantis to take additional spares and supplies to the space station.

In addition, some members of the US Congress are still trying to get the shuttle programme extended.

They oppose President Barack Obama's new exploration policy.

He wants the shuttles retired and the business of taxiing astronauts to and from the ISS passed to private companies. He believes the US space agency should concentrate its efforts on developing vehicles that can reach more distant targets, such as asteroids and Mars.

The shuttles, which have been working in space since 1981, cannot fulfil that role because their systems restrict them to near-Earth operations.

Atlantis's crew launched on 14 May fully expecting their mission to be the last for the ship. Their mission badge could be interpreted as the shuttle flying into the sunset.

First flown on 3 October 1985, Atlantis has now completed 32 missions and travelled about 195 million km (120 million miles).

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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