Atlantis and its four astronauts glided through the twilight Thursday and landed in Florida shortly before sunrise.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - Space shuttle Atlantis touched down before dawn at Kennedy Space Center's Runway 15, ending 30 years of space shuttle flights.
"Atlantis is home," said NASA control moments after its arrival at 5:56 a.m. ET. "Its journey complete. A moment to be savored."
In its final act before beginning the long journey home, Atlantis sent a small payload into orbit on Thursday.
As an era comes to a close, nearly 200 satellites, probes and spacecraft have emerged from the cargo bays of NASA's five space shuttles since the Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981.
"We really wish we could share with everybody this really cool glow," Commander Chris Ferguson radioed as he and his crew entered the Earth's atmosphere in a plasma of heated air before touching down. "We're doing fantastic."
The perfect landing is bittersweet. As sorrowful employees greeted the fabulous flying machine for the final time, plans for NASA's next grand venture remain largely on the drawing board. United Space Alliance, one of the space program's largest employers, will lay off about 2,000 employees on Friday.
President Obama has charged NASA with finding a way to transport astronauts into deep space, either to Mars or an asteroid, but that flight could be a generation away.
Most of the nation's baby boomers can remember the thrilling moment Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, inspiring a generation of kids who idolized astronauts and devoured space science.
The Generation X grew up on the space shuttle, which astronomer and former NASA historian Steven Dick says provided little in the way of ground-breaking exploration and discovery, but great engineering breakthroughs.
"It's definitely the end of the era," Dick said. "The shuttle has been a magnificent flying machine, an engineering marvel, but it has consigned Americans for two generations to low-Earth orbit. I think that's a negative."
Without the excitement of a heart-pounding launch of astronauts blasting toward the stars, America's space program seems destined for a decade of obscurity. American astronauts will hitch rides to the International Space Station on the Russian Soyuz until commercial space companies develop the rockets and capsules to transport humans.
"I hope we won't lose a whole generation. Kids get excited by exploration," Dick said. "I think NASA, in some ways, is doing the right thing by off-loading the routine work of the space shuttle. The only problem is we're a long way from getting something that will take us out of low-Earth orbit."
Until then, NASA is hoping to capture American imagination with telescopes, probes and and unmanned spacecraft.
"The Space Shuttle has been the iconic symbol of NASA for the last 30 years," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said. "We're going to have a different icon. We do aeronautics, climate research, deep space exploration with our telescopes, planetary observations with probes and rovers."
In August, Juno, an unmanned spacecraft, will launch on its five-year cruise to Jupiter. When it arrives in July, 2016, it will orbit Jupiter for a year, gathering and transmitting information that will help scientists understand the planet's origin, structure and atmosphere.
In September, NASA will launch the National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System project, which is the first step toward building an Earth-monitoring satellite system.
"There is all the space science stuff, which I think is pretty exciting," Dick said. "Everyone loves the images that come in from the Hubble."
At the center of it all is the space shuttle's largest and most ambitious legacy, the International Space Station that took more than a decade and 37 shuttle flights to build.
Six astronauts live and work in the one-million pound orbiting laboratory, keeping watch over dozens of scientific experiments.
"It's magical. I loved living up there and loved working up there," said astronaut Cady Coleman, who spent six months in the space station. "It's amazing to have this outpost, this scientific laboratory the size of a 747, in space."