Updated at 12:19 p.m. ET
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Atlantis and four astronauts returned from the International Space Station in triumph Thursday, bringing an end to NASA's 30-year shuttle journey with one last, rousing touchdown that drew cheers and tears.
"We each got choked up at different times," crew member Rex Walheim told reporters at a post-landing press conference. "There were times that you would take in the big picture, and it would get to you."
Coming home to a future clouded by tight budgets and uncertain political support, commander Christopher Ferguson guided Atlantis through a sweeping left overhead turn and lined up on runway 15, quickly descending into the glare of powerful xenon spotlights, CBS News space analyst William Harwood reports.
Approaching the 3-mile-long runway, Ferguson pulled the shuttle's nose up in a graceful flare, co-pilot Douglas Hurley lowered the ship's landing gear and Atlantis settled to a tire-smoking touchdown at 5:57 a.m. Eastern time. A few seconds later, as Atlantis barreled down the runway at more than 200 miles per hour, Hurley deployed a red-and-white braking parachute and the shuttle's nose gear settled to the runway.
"Having fired the imagination of a generation, a ship like no other, it's place in history secured, the space shuttle pulls into port for the last time, its voyage at an end," said mission control commentator Rob Navias.
Thousands gathered near the landing strip and packed Kennedy Space Center, and countless others watched 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," Ferguson radioed after a ghostlike Atlantis glided through the twilight.
"Job well done, America," replied Mission Control.
Harwood has covered the space program for CBS News for 20 years.
"It's almost like a funeral," Harwood told CBS News correspondent Rebecca Jarvis from Kennedy Space Center on CBS' "The Early Show." "I hate to put it that way, but it's almost like the loss of a good friend for all the thousands of people that have worked on the space shuttle over the last three decades. Seeing it come down to this landing and close out the program is truly a bittersweet moment."
With the shuttle's end, 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.
Until then, NASA astronauts will continue to hitch rides to the space station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for around $60 million per seat, Harwood reports.
"That's something that simply doesn't sit very well among the men and women who care and feed the shuttle over all of these years," Harwood told Jarvis. "There's some real disappointment about that more than the fact that the shuttle itself is over."
The long-term future for American space exploration is just as hazy, a huge concern for many at NASA and all those losing their jobs because of the shuttle's end. Asteroids and Mars are the destinations of choice, yet NASA has yet to settle on a rocket design to get astronauts there.
Thursday, though, belonged to Atlantis and its crew: Ferguson, Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, who completed a successful space station resupply mission.
"The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it's changed the way we view our universe," Ferguson radioed from Atlantis. "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."
For the landing, there wasn't nearly the hoopla that surrounded Atlantis' launch on July 8 when an estimated 1 million packed the Cape Canaveral area because of the hour and lack of spectacle. The darkness robbed virtually all views of the approaching shuttle, and made it more of a NASA family affair.
Atlantis was greeted with cheers, whistles and shouts from the record 2,000 who had gathered near the runway astronauts' families and friends, as well as shuttle managers and NASA brass. Soon, the sun was up and provided a splendid view. Within an hour, Ferguson and his crew were out on the runway and swarmed by well-wishers.
"The things that we've done have set us up for exploration of the future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., a former shuttle commander. "But I don't want to talk about that right now. I just want to salute this crew, welcome them home."
Nine-hundred miles away, flight director Tony Ceccacci, who presided over Atlantis' safe return, choked up while signing off from shuttle Mission Control in Houston.
"The work done in this room, in this building, will never again be duplicated," he told his team of flight controllers.
At those words, dozens of past and present flight controllers quickly streamed into the room, embracing one another and snapping pictures while keeping their tears, if not their emotions, in check.
But on the landing strip in Florida, flight director Mike Leinbach said the tears flowed. He himself was awash with emotion as he took in "the beauty of the vehicle," snapped pictures and posed for pictures at workers' requests, some of whom face layoffs.
"I saw grown men and grown women crying today tears of joy to be sure," Leinbach told reporters. "Human emotions came out on the runway today, and you couldn't suppress them."