EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE (California): The space shuttle Atlantis landed safely back at Edwards Air Force Base in California on 22 June, ending a two week mission prolonged by bad weather on Earth.
“Welcome back and congratulations on a great mission,” NASA mission control said to the seven-member crew after the shuttle docked.
The seven Atlantis astronauts had been due to return to Earth Thursday, but thunderstorms thwarted to attempts to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida and instead the shuttle was directed to the California base.
NASA is sensitive about landing the shuttle in bad weather as clouds below 2,400 meters (7,800 feet) block the pilot’s vision as the shuttle head to the landing strip.
Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at Edwards Air Force Base, California on 22 June
The landing came as the clock was ticking, with the shuttle’s hydrogen batteries, which provide its electric power, only having one more day of life.
The US space agency would have preferred to land the shuttle in Florida as it costs nearly two million dollars to return it from California piggy-backed atop a Boeing 747 and this could affect the schedule of future missions.
NASA said shuttle commander Rick Sturckow and pilot Lee Archambault had fired up the thrusters earlier after being given the green light to leave orbit and come plummeting toward Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The thrusters are used to slow down the orbiter, which reaches speeds of more than 26,000 kilometers per hour on the way toward Earth.
After breaking out of orbit with a blast known as a “deorbit burn,” the shuttle plummets earthward 20 times faster than a commercial airliner. But unlike a jet, the pilot gets only one try, due to lack of power.
While docked at the International Space Station during their 13-day mission, astronauts successfully installed a new truss segment, expanding the station’s laboratory with a new set of power-generating solar arrays.
The astronauts ventured out on four spacewalks to set up the truss and fix a thermal blanket which was damaged when the shuttle shot into orbit.
The small hole in the heat shield prompted concerns for the craft’s safety on re-entry, but NASA declared it fit to return after the repairs.
Engineers stressed it posed no threat to the crew, unlike the broken tile that caused shuttle Columbia to break up on re-entry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.
Atlantis brings back with it Sunita Williams, who had been on the ISS since December and has set a new record for the longest uninterrupted space flight by a woman.
Williams returned to Earth lying flat on her back in her crew couch, NASA said. Astronauts often return from long missions lying prone to ease the transition to gravity.
Atlantis left behind one crew member, Clayton Anderson, who is to stay on the orbiting research lab for four months alongside two Russian cosmonauts.
NASA plans at least 12 more shuttle missions, including three this year, as it races to finish building the $100 billion International Space Station by 2010, when the space agency retires its three remaining orbiters.
It considers the station a vital part of US ambitions to send a manned mission to Mars.