Crowd welcomes home, thanks final shuttle crew

Jul 23, 2011 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
NASA astronaut Rex Walheim signs an autograph at the welcome home ceremony for the astronauts of the final shuttle mission Friday, July 22, 2011, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

(AP) -- It may have been the final big official event of the last space shuttle mission, but a welcome-home and thank-you party for the crew of Atlantis Friday wasn't dwelling on any sad ending.

Despite pending layoffs and triple-digit temperatures, it was a hopeful attitude that filled an airplane hangar with no air conditioning for the traditional welcome home for the shuttle crew. What wasn't traditional was the size of the crowd - in the thousands - and that this was the last shuttle crew, a team that calls themselves The Final Four. But no one talked of an end of exploring space, rather that it was the start of something new.

"This is living proof that the dream is still alive and will remain alive in this little period of lay off," Atlantis Commander Christopher Ferguson told a cheering, flag-waving crowd of thousands.

Speaking in front of a 15-foot tall American flag, Atlantis astronaut Rex Walheim agreed.

"This is a celebration," Walheim said, telling people not to concentrate on the end of space shuttle flights "but smile because it happened. We're going to have another program coming down the line that we're going to be just as proud of."

Eleven-year-old Brandon Pitts is counting on it.

"I always wanted to be an astronaut," he said, while straining against a rope line. He clutched an Atlantis jigsaw puzzle, trying to get a good view.

Some people may have lost interest in space, but once NASA starts and stays focused on its next big mission, that attention will return, Ferguson said.

"If we build it, they will come," Ferguson said.

The decision to cease was made seven years ago, barely a year after the Columbia tragedy. President nixed President George W. Bush's lunar goals, however, opting instead for astronaut expeditions to an asteroid and Mars.

Last-ditch appeals to keep shuttles flying by such NASA legends as Apollo 11's and Mission Control founder Christopher Kraft landed flat. NASA is retiring the shuttles, according to the program manager, so it can get out of low-Earth orbit and get to points beyond. The first stop under Obama's plan is an asteroid by 2025; next comes Mars in the mid-2030s.

They came by the thousands to Houston's Ellington Field to see the crew, get autographs and space memorabilia. The crowd mobbed the crew - including pilot Douglas Hurley and Sandra Magnus - who were tired from their 13-day flight to resupply the International Space Station, so officials had to ask them to step back a bit in the push for autographs.

Justin Tesno, 10, came out of the throng with Ferguson's autograph on his hand-held fan, saying "It was worth it."

The event was also a pep rally for the city of Houston, which houses Mission Control at Johnson Space Center. Ferguson said "Houston has taken it on the chin a little bit," and unveiled a thank you poster that flew on that final mission.

The poster said: "Houston. Always the first word in space. Thank you!"

But this wasn't just a Houston thank you.

Teresa Santana and her family were on vacation from Mexico, and decided they had to come to the Atlantis welcome-home party. She didn't think this was near the end of Americans in .

"It's historic," Santana said, adding: "They're going to keep working on more."

Explore further: Sandblasting winds shift Mars' landscape

More information: NASA's Johnson Space Center: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/home/index.html

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Last space shuttle aims for Thursday landing (Update)

Jul 20, 2011

(AP) -- On the eve of NASA's historic, wheel-stopping end to the shuttle program, the four astronauts making the final journey and the flight controllers who will guide them home said Wednesday they're starting ...

Last space shuttle crew bids historic goodbye

Jul 18, 2011

(AP) -- The astronauts on NASA's final shuttle voyage floated out of the International Space Station for the last time Monday, leaving behind a historic U.S. flag and a commemorative shuttle model to mark ...

Recommended for you

US-India to collaborate on Mars exploration

53 minutes ago

The United States and India, fresh from sending their own respective spacecraft into Mars' orbit earlier this month, on Tuesday agreed to cooperate on future exploration of the Red Planet.

Swift mission observes mega flares from a mini star

1 hour ago

On April 23, NASA's Swift satellite detected the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of stellar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star. The initial blast from this record-setting series ...

Sandblasting winds shift Mars' landscape

5 hours ago

High winds are a near-daily force on the surface of Mars, carving out a landscape of shifting dunes and posing a challenge to exploration, scientists said Tuesday.

PanSTARRS K1, the comet that keeps going

8 hours ago

Thank you K1 PanSTARRS for hanging in there! Some comets crumble and fade away. Others linger a few months and move on. But after looping across the night sky for more than a year, this one is nowhere near ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

89118a
3 / 5 (2) Jul 23, 2011
I thank you NASA and it's people. I wish you didn't vote for Reagan and Bushes though. So now enjoy your tax cut, abortion free unemployment.