Cape Canaveral: The successful shuttle Atlantis mission has finally given NASA something to celebrate this year after being rocked by an astronaut’s arrest and a shooting at its Houston campus.
The US space agency put the focus back on its space exploration mission as Atlantis safely landed on 22 June with seven astronauts aboard including Indian-American Sunita Williams, completing a successful flight during which they expanded the International Space Station.
The first shuttle mission of the year -- during which astronauts installed new solar panels on the ISS -- kept NASA on track to meet its goal of finishing construction of the orbiting laboratory by 2010.
But 2007 started tumultuously for NASA with the arrest in February of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who police said wore a diaper to avoid bathroom breaks as she drove from Texas to Florida to confront a love rival.
Nowak has pleaded not guilty to attempted kidnapping charges following her bizarre cross-country odyssey, which earned embarrassing headlines in the US media such as “Astronaughty,” “Space Oddity,” “Lust in Space” and “Astronut.”
Nowak’s service aboard a shuttle Discovery mission in 2006 didn’t save her from being fired in March.
Then in April, a NASA contractor managed to sneak a revolver past security at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, and barricaded himself inside a building at the sprawling campus, police said.
Bill Phillips, who had worked for NASA for 12 years, duct-taped a female co-worker to a chair and fatally shot a male colleague in the chest before turning the gun on himself, officials said.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also faced political turmoil after NASA chief Michael Griffin questioned the need to tackle global warming.
Griffin, criticised in Congress for cutting programmes aimed at monitoring climate change, said in a US radio interview on 31 May he was not sure that global warming “is a problem we must wrestle with.”
His comments even stunned NASA’s own top climate change expert, James Hansen. “It was a shocking statement because of the level of ignorance it indicated with regard to the current situation,” Hansen said.
The Atlantis mission, meanwhile, had originally been scheduled to launch in March but was delayed three months. The reason: the shuttle’s external fuel tank was damaged during a freak hail storm as it stood on its Florida launch pad.
The delay also forced NASA to cut the number of planned shuttle flights this year from five to four.
But the attention finally turned back to NASA’s venerable space mission on June 8 when all eyes looked skyward as Atlantis blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
It was the third ISS construction mission since the Columbia tragedy of 2003, in which seven astronauts died. The shuttle missions since Columbia have focused on improving flight safety.
The new power-generating solar arrays installed on the ISS during the Atlantis mission will provide electricity for Europe’s Columbus laboratory, which a space shuttle is scheduled to deliver in December.