THE CANADIAN PRESS -- LONGUEUIL, Que. - Atlantis glided to a safe landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 a.m. ET to end the last flight of a 30-year program.
A record crowd of 2,000 gathered near the landing strip, thousands more packed the space center and countless others watched history unfold from afar as NASA's longest-running spaceflight program came to a close.
"After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle's earned its place in history. And it's come to a final stop," radioed commander Christopher Ferguson.
"Job well done, America," replied Mission Control.
"The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it's changed the way we view our universe," said Ferguson. "There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing's indisputable. America's not going to stop exploring.
"Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end."
The twilight landing, just before dawn, came 30 years and three months after the very first shuttle flight in 1981. It will be another three to five years at best before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil, with private companies gearing up to seize the Earth-to-orbit-and-back baton from NASA
Canadians will gather at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal later this morning to toast the official end of the shuttle era and numerous innovations sparked by the program.
They include a miniaturized heart pump, metal alloys that sparked a new line of golf clubs, better baby formula and a golden age of Canadian robotics.
On the final flight of Atlantis is one of three remaining Canadarm robots, which will eventually end up in a U.S. museum.
But the original robotic arm -- the first one that went up in 1981 -- was recently retired with the shuttle Endeavour and will be returned to Canada later this year.
Eight Canadian astronauts have flown 14 times on the U.S. fleet of space shuttles.
But all spaceflights for the next several years, including Canadian Chris Hadfield's scheduled trip to the International Space Station in 2012, will be aboard a Russian Soyuz vessel.
Veteran Marc Garneau, the first Canadian to go into space and who flew on the shuttle Challenger in October 1984, says the return of Atlantis marks the end of an era "where we did incredible things."
But the astronaut-turned-politician says the all-purpose space vehicle was still too dangerous even if it made 135 flights.
"Two tragedies out of 135 flights is too many," he said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
During 30 years of shuttle flights, 14 astronauts died in two accidents. Challenger erupted into a fireball during its launch on Jan. 28, 1986. And Columbia broke apart on Feb. 1, 2003, as it returned to Earth.
Garneau, now 62, took two other flights on American shuttles -- both times on Endeavour -- in 1996 and in 2000.
"My life is intimately connected to this experience and I think the pride will remain because I was part of this program," he said.
Garneau, the former head of the Canadian Space Agency, says he would love to see an all-Canadian robotic mission to Mars.
"I'm confident if Canada gives itself the challenge of a Canadian robotic mission to Mars -- aside from the launch vehicle -- we would be able to do the rest."
With files from The Associated Press.
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