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NASA fends off tears with shuttle end in sight


Space shuttle Atlantis. A NASA photo

WASHINGTON (AFP): NASA astronauts and engineers fought off tears Wednesday as Atlantis made its final approach toward Earth, bringing an end to the 30-year shuttle programme and closing a chapter in human spaceflight.

The shuttle was set to roll to a stop early Thursday, exactly 42 years after US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.

Atlantis's landing will end an era of US dominance in human space exploration, leaving Russia as the sole taxi to the International Space Station until a replacement US capsule can be built by private industry.

But NASA administrator Charles Bolden insisted that once the shuttle eases onto the runway at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 am (0956 GMT) Thursday, any tears on the faces of NASA employees will reflect both sadness and joy.

"My number one job right now is to ensure that we safely get Atlantis and her crew on the runway tomorrow," Bolden, a former astronaut, said on CNN.

"I will have tears of joy and tears of sadness at that time, but the tears of joy will be because we are already working with commercial companies to put cargo on the International Space Station as early as next year," he said.

"We are working with other commercial companies to put American astronauts and our partner astronauts on the International Space Station in four or five years."

Bolden has repeatedly brushed off critics who say the US space agency is in disarray, facing thousands of layoffs, an astronauts corps half the size it had 10 years ago and no human spaceflight program to replace the shuttle.

"We have just not done a good job of telling our story. NASA is very busy," Bolden said. "The president said to us, 2025 for an asteroid and 2030 to Mars. We have a lot of work to do ahead."

Meanwhile, the crew of four US astronauts aboard Atlantis savored their final day in orbit and NASA TV ran live images of the shuttle's view of Earth after a successful mission to restock the ISS for a year with several tons of supplies and food.

Tags:

NASA  Atlantis  ISS  Astronauts  

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