CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA's shuttle Endeavour and its seven-astronaut crew returned to Earth Tuesday, landing one day early due to earlier concerns that Hurricane Dean could disrupt Mission Control operations in Texas.
Endeavour swooped down out of the Florida sky to loose two sonorous sonic booms before making a 12:32 p.m. EDT (1632 GMT) touchdown at NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility here at the Kennedy Space Center.
"Although it's been a short two weeks, we've accomplished a lot," shuttle commander Scott Kelly told Mission Control this morning. "We still look very much forward to coming home today."
Kelly and his STS-118 crew, which includes teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan, delivered more than two tons of cargo to the ISS, where they replaced a broken gyroscope and installed a new starboard-side piece of the outpost's main truss.
"I think the shuttle program gets an A-plus," said Morgan, who served as NASA's backup to Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe for the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission, during the spaceflight. "Once we don't have the shuttle anymore, I think it's going to be something we look back at with great nostalgia and we're really, really going to miss it."
NASA chief Michael Griffin told reporters after landing that Morgan was in good health after her first spaceflight, but required more time to readapt to Earth's gravity after spending almost two weeks in weightlessness.
Endeavour's landing completed a 5.3 million-mile (8.5 million-kilometer) flight for the orbiter, its first in nearly five years following a major systems overhaul. The shuttle orbited the Earth about 201 times and landed with small, but deep, gouge in the heat-resistant tiles lining the orbiter's underbelly, but mission managers found it posed no risk to the spacecraft's reentry.
NASA video of the gouged tiles showed some signs of additional damage, but not the extensive surface tunneling depicted in ground tests last week. NASA launch and entry flight director Steve Stich said Monday that he did not anticipate any extra tile damage would hinder preparations for Endeavour's next flight in February.
"This flight has been extraordinarily productive," said NASA space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale. "Endeavour, in fact, has performed nearly flawlessly."
Returning to Earth aboard Endeavour with Kelly and Morgan were shuttle pilot Charlie Hobaugh along with mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Alvin Drew, Jr. and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams.
Initially slated for a Wednesday return, Endeavour's landing was pushed up one day due to concerns that Hurricane Dean could prompt an evacuation of NASA's Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Those worries fell away over the last few days as the massive storm headed instead towards central Mexico.
During their 13-day mission, Endeavour's astronaut crew performed four spacewalks to outfit the station with a new, $11 million Starboard 5 (S5) truss. The small spacer segment primes the station for the deliver of its fourth and final set of U.S. solar arrays on a future shuttle flight.
"I think the best lesson is that this is truly a marvelous place to be," Morgan said of the ISS. "The station is incredible. It is a work in progress."
Williams set a new record for the most spacewalks and spacewalking time by a Canadian astronaut, and soaked up the views of his home planet during his three construction sessions of the STS-118 flight.
"The view is very hard to describe," Williams told reporters during the mission. "All around you, you've got this panoramic view of Earth around you. It's absolutely spectacular."
Endeavour's crew also installed a new spare parts platform outside the ISS. The shuttle cast off from the ISS early Sunday, leaving behind the space station's three-astronaut crew of Expedition 15.
"Have a good trip home, and a very safe trip," the station's Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin told Endeavour's crew. "We are with you."
More work ahead
During their flight, Endeavour's crew primed the orbital laboratory's mast-like Port 6 (P6) truss for relocation to its port-most edge later this year. The astronauts also topped off the station's nitrogen tanks, delivered some 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of oxygen and left the station's Expedition 15 crew with 1,000 pounds (453 kilograms) of extra water.
Yurchikin and his Expedition 15 crewmates, during the STS-118 flight, successfully replaced a faulty electronics box and corroded cables responsible for a major computer crash in June.
"From our perspective, we're completely satisfied with the mission," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager, of STS-118. "It met every objective that we needed to continue on with assembly."
Some of that work begins next week on Aug. 30, when the space station's Expedition 15 crew will move a conical docking port on the station's Unity connecting node to make way for a new module later this year.
NASA plans at least 11 more shuttle flights to complete construction of the ISS by September 2010, when the space agency plans to retire its three-orbiter fleet. Two flights are slated to fly later this year: The shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch the new Harmony connecting node on Oct. 23, and Atlantis is set to haul the European Columbus laboratory to the ISS on Dec. 6.
Tuesday's landing completed NASA's 119th shuttle flight -- the 22nd bound for the ISS -- and the 20th spaceflight for Endeavour. NASA will now begin priming the shuttle for its next flight, STS-123 in February 2008, to deliver the first component of Japan's Kibo laboratory to the space station.
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