By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The end of the U.S. space shuttle program launched the Atlantis crew on an emotional roller coaster on Thursday, with pride at a successful finale vying with sadness that their 30-year undertaking is over.
The shuttle Atlantis returned from a 13-day mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station before dawn on Thursday, completing the 135th and final flight.
"I'm not going to say you're going to see fighter pilots crying or anything like that," Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley had told Reuters before the launch earlier this month.
"But there's not going to be any cameras (in the cockpit), so that might happen."
Hurley, 44, a Marine Corps colonel who grew up in Apalachin, New York, told reporters after the landing: "We each got choked up at different times during the mission."
After the 2003 Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts, the United States decided to end the space shuttle program once the International Space Station, which was half-built at the time, was finished.
That milestone was reached this year.
"Every vehicle has its life," said Atlantis astronaut Sandy Magnus. "We've known the shuttle is going to retire for a very long time. Knowing this was the normal plan, you want to celebrate the shuttle. You want to acknowledge all the hard work that people have done for 30 years because it is an important part of our country."
"It's hard to say goodbye," she added. "It's like saying goodbye to an old friend."
Instead of about 30 astronauts flying on shuttle missions each year, only about four will be needed to fill U.S.-allotted posts on the space station now that the U.S. space shuttle fleet is being retired.
The space station, an orbital research outpost, is a $100 billion project of 16 nations that was finished this year after more than a decade of construction
(Editing by Jane Sutton and Eric Beech)