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July 21, 2011
Space shuttle comes to 'final stop' after 30 years
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Atlantis and four astronauts returned from the International Space Station in triumph Thursday, bringing an end to NASA's 30-year shuttle journey with one last, rousing touchdown that drew cheers and tears.
Thousands gathered near the landing strip and packed Kennedy Space Center, and countless others watched from afar, as NASA's longest-running spaceflight program came to a close.
With the space shuttles retiring to museums, it will be another three to five years at best before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil, as private companies gear up to seize the Earth-to-orbit-and-back baton from NASA. (16 images)



Space shuttle Atlantis is towed to the Orbitor Processing facility for decommissioning at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, July 21, 2011. The landing of Atlantis marks the end of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program. AP / Terry Renna


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Space shuttle Atlantis is towed to the Orbitor Processing facility for decommissioning at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, July 21, 2011. AP / Terry Renna



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Space shuttle Atlantis is towed to the Orbitor Processing facility for decommissioning as hundreds of NASA employees gather at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, July 21, 2011. AP / Terry Renna



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NASA workers escort space shuttle Atlantis as it is towed to the Orbitor Processing facility for decommissioning at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, July 21, 2011. AP / John Raoux



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Commander Chris Ferguson walks under space shuttle Atlantis after landing at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Thursday, July 21, 2011. Pool / Reuters / Scott Audette



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The drag chute is deployed as the space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing STS-135, the final mission of the NASA shuttle program, on Thursday, July 21, 2011. Houston Chronicle / Smiley N. Pool



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Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Thursday, July 21, 2011. Houston Chronicle / James Nielsen



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Grace Calhoun, 16, of Nashville, front, screams with joy while watching the Space Shuttle Atlantis land at Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center at U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala, Thursday, July 21, 2011. The Huntsville Times / Eric Schultz



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Spectators watch as the space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing STS-135, the final mission of the NASA shuttle program, on Thursday, July 21, 2011. Houston Chronicle / Smiley N. Pool



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Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Thursday, July 21, 2011. Florida Today / Craig Rubadoux



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Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Thursday, July 21, 2011. The landing of Atlantis marks the end of NASA's 30 year space shuttle program. Florida Today / Craig Rubadoux



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Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Thursday, July 21, 2011. The landing of Atlantis marks the end of NASA's 30 year space shuttle program. (AP Photo/ Pierre Du Charme, Pool) AP / Pierre Du Charme



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Space shuttle Atlantis, STS-135, lands at 5:57am EDT at the Kennedy Space Center concluding 30 years and 135 missions. Orlando Sentinel / Red Huber



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Johnson Space Center employees Jeremy Rea, right, and Shelley Stortz, left, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land Thursday, July 21, 2011, in Houston. AP / David J. Phillip



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This image provided by NASA shows a view of the space shuttle Atlantis while still docked with the International Space Station taken by crew member Mike Fossum aboard the station Monday July 18, 2011. The robotic arm on the shuttle appears to be saluting "good-bye" to the station. Earth's airglow is seen as a thin line above Earth's horizon. NASA / Mike Fossum



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This image provided by NASA shows the space shuttle Atlantis photographed from the International Space Station as the orbiting complex and the shuttle performed final separation of a space shuttle in the early hours of Tuesday July 19, 2011. NASA



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