Video: As Endeavour Returns Home For the Final Time, Atlantis Prepares for the Last Shuttle Launch Ever

Shuttles passing in the night

“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go”
— Capt. James Cook, commander of the HMS Endeavour

Sailing through the midnight sky to a picture-perfect landing in Florida, the country’s youngest spaceship came home for the last time Wednesday, leaving a completed space station in its wake. On a 16-day mission, the crew of space shuttle Endeavour installed a massive physics experiment and put the finishing touches on the ISS, completing the last scheduled spacewalks by shuttle crew members.

As Endeavour approached Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle Atlantis crawled toward its launch pad to prepare for its own final voyage.

Endeavour completed 248 orbits around Earth, traveling 6.5 million miles on its 25th and final flight. The orbiter spent a total of 299 days in space, circling the globe 4,671 times and logging 122,883,151 total miles, according to NASA. Watch the dramatic nighttime touchdown below.

Astronauts completed four spacewalks to install the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which has already started collecting data. They also delivered spare parts that will help the space station maintain operations after July, when a visit by Atlantis is scheduled to complete the shuttle program.

Before returning to Earth, Endeavour’s crew made a touching video in tribute to their ship, recalling that it rose from a collection of spare parts to one of the country’s greatest accomplishments. Endeavour was built to replace the Challenger, and it was the first and only shuttle named by schoolchildren. (Does anyone else remember voting in the naming contest back in 1988?)

Commander Mark Kelly made his first and now final spaceflights aboard Endeavour, and he shared some eloquent words in honor of his ship, named for the intrepid exploration vessel manned by British Capt. James Cook.

“The retirement of Endeavour and the shuttle fleet will not end the human need to explore,” Kelly said. “It is, and always will be, part of who we are. The United States will build other spaceships, better than those of today. Even if they are years in the future, they will nevertheless increase our knowledge of the world, generate an enormous benefit to our economy and inspire our children. We can’t know when they will come about, or what they will be, but perhaps one of those new vehicles of exploration will be named Endeavour, and maybe it will take humans to other planets or even more distant worlds circling other stars. It could bear no prouder or more fitting name.”

We could never have said it better ourselves.

[NASA, Cosmic Log]