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NASA space shuttle returns for last time

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Endeavour and its six astronauts returned to Earth early yesterday, closing out the next-to-last mission in NASA's 30-year program with a safe middle-of-the-night landing.

Endeavour glided down onto the runway one final time under the cover of darkness, just as Atlantis, the last shuttle bound for space, arrived at the launchpad for the grand finale in five weeks.

Cmdr. Mark Kelly, whose wife, wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, remained at her rehab center in Houston, brought Endeavour to a stop before hundreds of onlookers that included the four Atlantis astronauts who will take flight in July. He waited hours before calling her so he wouldn't wake her up.

Endeavour, the youngest of the shuttles with 123 million miles over 25 flights, is now bound for a museum in California early next year.

"Your landing ends a vibrant legacy for this amazing vehicle that will long be remembered," Mission Control told Kelly and his crewmates.

"It's sad to see her land for the last time," Kelly said, "but she really has a great legacy."

A few hours earlier, thousands jammed Kennedy Space Center to see Atlantis make its way to the launchpad, the last such trek ever by a shuttle.

"The show pretty much tells itself," Atlantis' commander, Christopher Ferguson, said as he waved toward his ship. "We're going to look upon this final mission as a celebration of all that the space shuttle has accomplished over its 30-year life span."

Bright lights illuminated the landing strip for Kelly, who made the 25th night landing out of a total of 134 shuttle flights.

The Endeavour astronauts, all experienced spacemen, departed the 220-mile-high orbiting outpost over the weekend. They installed a $2-billion cosmic ray detector, an extension beam and a platform full of spare parts, enough to keep the station operating in the shuttle-less decade ahead.

Their flight lasted 16 days and completed NASA's role in the space station construction effort that began more than 12 years ago.

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