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Second-to-last space shuttle lands; final waits on launch pad
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA's 30-year shuttle program inched closer to the end Wednesday, wrapping up its second-to-last mission and moving Atlantis to the launch pad for next month's final flight.
Endeavour and its six astronauts returned to Earth after more than two weeks in space, gliding down the runway one last time during a middle-of-the-night landing. A few miles away, Atlantis reached the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center for the grand finale in five weeks.
Endeavour commander Mark Kelly -- whose wife, wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, remained behind at her rehab center in Houston -- brought Endeavour to a stop before hundreds of onlookers that included the four Atlantis astronauts.
"It's sad to see her land for the last time," Kelly said, "but she really has a great legacy."
Endeavour, the youngest of the shuttles with 123 million miles over 25 flights, is now bound for a museum in California.
A few hours earlier, thousands of employees and their families lined the route Tuesday night as Atlantis slowly crept toward the launch pad, bathed in bright lights.
"We're going to look upon this final mission as a celebration of all that the space shuttle has accomplished over its 30-year life span," Atlantis' commander, Christopher Ferguson, said as he waved toward his ship, which will make the 135th and last shuttle flight.
Endeavour's mission lasted 16 days and completed NASA's role in the space station construction effort that began more than a dozen years ago.
The crew -- all experienced astronauts -- departed the 220-mile-high orbiting outpost over the weekend. They installed a $2 billion cosmic ray detector, an extension beam and a platform full of spare parts, enough to keep the station operating in the shuttleless decade ahead.
NASA is leaving the Earth-to-orbit business behind to focus on expeditions to asteroids and Mars. Private companies hope to pick up the slack for cargo and crew hauls to the space station. Until then, Americans will continue hitching rides to the station aboard Russian Soyuz capsules at the cost of tens of millions of dollars a seat.
The official tally for Endeavour after 19 years of flight was 170 crew members, 299 days in space, 4,671 orbits of Earth and 122,883,151 miles.
Launch managers marveled Wednesday over how good Endeavour still looks.
"It looks like it's ready to go do another mission," Kelly noted.
Endeavour will eventually head to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Discovery, the fleet leader which made its final voyage earlier this year, goes to a Smithsonian Institution hangar outside Washington. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy Space Center as a tourist stop, following one last supply run to the space station. Liftoff is set for July 8.
Moving Atlantis to the launch pad as Endeavour touched down helped temper the sadness so many are feeling about the program's end, officials said. Thousands of more layoffs loom.
"We're in the process of transition now, and it's going to be awkward," Atlantis astronaut Rex Walheim said. "But we'll get to the other side and we'll have new vehicles."
But it will be hard to outdo the shuttle, he said as Atlantis rolled to the pad behind him. "I mean, how can you beat that? An airplane sitting on the side of a rocket. It's absolutely stunning."