Cape Canaveral, Florida -- At 5:57 am local time, space shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, after 200 orbits around Earth and a journey of 5 284 862 miles on mission STS-135.
In the 30 year the shuttle has operated, this was the 25th night landing, the 78th landing at Kennedy and the 133rd landing overall.
The space shuttle's launches have been fuelled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen, fed to the burners via a massive external fuel tank, which forms one of the largest-ever uses of polyurethane foam insulation.
At 8.4 x 7 metres, each tank was insulated with 2.2 tonnes of polyurethane foam, some applied manually and some sprayed automatically at tank maker Lockheed Martin, in a highly controlled process. Foam was applied at 2.5 cm thickness on the liquid oxygen tank, and at up to 5 cm thick on the liquid hydrogen tank.
Application of the foam, and design of the parts around the places where the tanks were attached to the shuttle, was subject to intense scrutiny and re-design after the 2003 tragedy when the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.
The official investigation into the 1 Feb 2003 disaster identified the cause of the catastrophe as damage to the shuttle's protective heat-guarding tiles from a 0.75-kg piece of polyurethane foam -- which broke free of the shuttle's fuel tank during launch and hit the underside of the vessel.
The last mission of the shuttle, crewed by commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim, delivered more than 9400 pounds (4.3 tonnes) of spare parts, spare equipment and other supplies in the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module -- including 2677 pounds of food for the space station personnel for the next year. The Raffaello also brought back nearly 5700 pounds of unneeded materials from the station.
NASA - the US National Aeronatics and Space Administration - said that since STS-1 launched on 12 April 1981, 355 people from 16 countries flew 852 times aboard the shuttle.
The five shuttles travelled more than 542 million miles and hosted more than 2000 experiments. The shuttles docked with two space stations, the Russian Mir and the International Space Station. Shuttles deployed 180 payloads, including satellites, returned 52 from space and retrieved, repaired and redeployed seven spacecraft.
A welcome home ceremony for the astronauts will be held 4.00 pm Friday 22 July in Houston, at NASA's Hangar 990 at Ellington Field, with the ceremony broadcast live on NASA Television.
PIC: Atlantis lands for the last time Thursday 21 July (NASA pic).