The space shuttle Endeavour lands safely at Kennedy Space Centre
The space shuttle Endeavour touched down at its Florida home base early on Wednesday, capping a 16-day mission to deliver a premier science experiment to the International Space Station on NASA's next-to-last shuttle flight, reports Reuters.
Sailing through night skies, the shuttle and its six-man crew glided towards the Kennedy Space Centre, circling high overhead to burn off speed and setting off a pair of sonic booms, heralding the ship's homecoming.
Commander Scott Kelly, a four-time shuttle veteran, gently eased the 100-tonne spaceship onto the runway, touching down at 2:35 a.m. EDT (7:35 a.m. British time) to complete Endeavour's 25th and final flight.
Nearby, sister ship Atlantis reached the launch pad, where it will be prepared for NASA's final planned shuttle mission, a supply run to the space station scheduled for liftoff on July 8.
"It's going to be a long time until you see a vehicle roll out to the pad that looks as beautiful as that," said Atlantis astronaut Rex Walheim, who was at the Kennedy Space Centre along with his three crew mates to watch NASA's final shuttle roll-out.
"An airplane on the side of a rocket. It's absolutely stunning," he said.
The United States is retiring its three-ship fleet due to high operating costs and to free up funds to develop new spacecraft that can travel beyond the space station's 220-mile-high (346-km-high) orbit.
The primary goal of Endeavour's flight, the 134th in shuttle program history, was to deliver the $2 billion (1 billion pounds) Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector and a pallet of spare parts to the station.
The crew also made four spacewalks to complete assembly of the U.S. side of the $100 billion outpost, a project of 16 nations that has been under construction since 1998.
It will be at least four years before NASA astronauts can fly out of the United States again. Until new ships are ready, Russia will transport crews to the station at a cost of more than $50 million per person.
"Times of transition are very difficult," said Atlantis astronaut Sandy Magnus. "I think in the end we'll end up with a good plan and we'll have a solid future ahead of us."