Space Shuttle Atlantis Lands Safely In Florida - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

9/21/06-Florida

Space Shuttle Atlantis Lands Safely In Florida

Space shuttle Atlantis touches down in Florida on Thursday morning before sunrise. Space shuttle Atlantis touches down in Florida on Thursday morning before sunrise.
The port side of Atlantis during a video survey of its heat shield on Wednesday. The port side of Atlantis during a video survey of its heat shield on Wednesday.
A unidentified piece of debris spotted by astronaut Daniel Burbank on Wednesday. A unidentified piece of debris spotted by astronaut Daniel Burbank on Wednesday.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (AP) -- Space shuttle Atlantis and its six astronauts glided to a safe landing in darkness early Thursday, ending a 12-day mission whose smooth success was briefly upstaged by the high drama caused by mysterious floating debris.

"Nice to be back. It was a great team effort," said commander Brent Jett immediately after touchdown at Kennedy Space Center at 6:21 a.m. EDT.

From 220 miles above Earth, astronaut Jeff Williams watched from the space station, where Atlantis had departed on Sunday after its astronauts did the first construction work on the station since the Columbia disaster 31/2 years ago.

"Spectacular lightning flashes just below the orbiter," Williams said as the space shuttle slowed from traveling at 17,000 miles an hour and entered Earth's atmosphere about an hour before landing. "The glow of the orbiter itself is getting dimmer but the contrail is still pretty bright."

More than 11/2 hours after landing, all six crew members, wearing broad grins, left the shuttle to greet NASA administrator Michael Griffin and other agency officials. They then walked under Atlantis to inspect the shuttle's heat shield.

The landing 48 minutes before sunrise was a day later than planned because NASA ordered up more inspections of the spacecraft's delicate skin to make sure it was safe to come home. The fear was that a mysterious piece of debris spotted floating nearby on Tuesday might have hit the spacecraft. Astronauts later saw other debris.

"We've seen a new standard in NASA vigilance," said shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.

After numerous cameras took pictures above and below, some of them maneuvered robotically by the shuttle astronauts, NASA proclaimed the spacecraft damage-free.

The unplanned drama threatened to overshadow what had been a nearly flawless mission filled with strenuous spacewalks and rigorous robotics work that placed the international space station back on a path to completion after its long hiatus.

"Assembly is off to a good start," Atlantis' commander said upon his return home.

NASA officials said their best guess was that the most worrisome object was a plastic filler placed in between thermal tiles which protect the shuttle from blasting heat. Four other pieces of debris, including a possible garbage bag, floated near the shuttle over the next day.

Atlantis' return avoided a near traffic jam at the space station, as a Russian Soyuz spacecraft arrived at the space station less than two days after Atlantis had departed.

It was the 21st landing in darkness of 114 successful landings.

The Atlantis mission was the first of 15 tightly scheduled flights needed to finish constructing the half-built space lab by 2010.

The shuttle delivered a 171/2-ton truss addition with two massive solar arrays that opened like gleaming golden wings. The solar panels will eventually provide a quarter of the station's power when it is finished in 2010.

'We're back in the assembly business'

In three highly choreographed spacewalks, astronauts hooked up cables, removed bolts and opened up a radiator over the solar arrays. NASA had described the 11-day schedule as one of the busiest and most challenging ever for a shuttle crew.

"We're back in the assembly business," said Hale. "We achieved a new record in assembling a new component in a minimum number of spacewalks."

NASA and its international partners of Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan must finish building the space station before the U.S. space agency ends the shuttle program in 2010 with plans to return to the moon in a new vehicle. The massive, 25-year-old shuttles are the only spaceships large enough to haul construction parts to the space lab.

The next shuttle flight in the construction sequence is set for December.

Before Atlantis' mission, the space station hadn't been expanded since late 2002. The Columbia disaster in 2003 grounded the three remaining shuttles for two years, and NASA devoted another year to test flights in an effort to keep insulation foam from falling off the space shuttle's external tank -- the problem that doomed Columbia and its seven astronauts.

The Atlantis astronauts started work right away upon arriving at the space station last week. The massive $372 million addition was handed from one giant robotic arm to another -- from the shuttle to the space station.

Astronauts Joe Tanner and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper served as cosmic electricians and carried out two of the mission's three challenging spacewalks. Dan Burbank and Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency performed the other. Both teams lost a few bolts.

The mission was bookended by delays. At first, it seemed as if Atlantis never would get off the ground. The launch was scrubbed four times in two weeks because of a launch pad lightning bolt, Tropical Storm Ernesto and problems with the electrical system and a fuel gauge.

With all the postponements, NASA negotiated with the Russians to squeeze out one last chance in its launch window. The Russians were worried the trip would interfere with their Soyuz trip to the space station with a paying customer, Iranian-born space tourist Anousheh Ansari, a Dallas businesswoman. The Soyuz lifted off Monday, just hours after Atlantis had undocked from the space station.

Less than 24 hours after Atlantis undocked, an oxygen generator on the space station overheated and spilled a toxic irritant, forcing the three-man crew to don masks and gloves in the first emergency ever declared aboard the 8-year-old orbiting outpost.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Powered by Frankly