The Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -Space shuttle Endeavour and its seven astronauts returned to Earth on Friday, completing a long but successful construction job that boosted the size and power of the international space station.
Endeavour glided through a slightly hazy sky and touched down on Kennedy Space Center's landing strip. Its smooth and punctual late morning arrival set off a stream of praise.
"Congratulations on a superbmission from beginning to end. Very well done," Mission Control radioed.
"We're happy to be home," replied commander Mark Polansky.
While visiting the space station, Polansky and his crew put on a new addition to Japan's $1 billion lab, installed fresh batteries, and stockpiled some big spare parts. They accomplished all of their major objectives and were part of the biggest gathering ever in space: Counting the six station residents, the crowd totaled 13.
The shuttle mission lasted 16 days and spanned 6.5 million miles, one of NASA's longest. But it was the 138th day in orbit Friday for Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who moved into the space station last March. He swapped places with an American who rode up on Endeavour.
Before leaving orbit, Wakata said he was yearning for some sushi for his first meal back on the planet and a soak in a hot spring once he's back in Japan. At the top of his list, though, was reuniting with his wife and son, who were on hand for the homecoming.
The shuttle astronauts carried out five spacewalks ‚ tying a record for a single flight ‚ and helped their station colleagues when a toilet flooded and an air purifier overheated. The commode, one of three on the linked shuttle and station, was fixed in a day. But the air-cleansing system remained out of order Friday.
Another highlight: The astronauts got to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing with their own spacewalk.
Japan's Kibo lab ‚ which means Hope ‚ received a front porch for outdoor experiments during Endeavour's visit. An X-ray telescope and space environment monitor were installed on the porch, along with communication equipment.
The mission concluded work on the lab ‚ the largest one at the orbiting outpost ‚ that took more than a year and three shuttle flights. Next up for the Japanese will be the debut launch in September of an unmanned cargo ship.
As for NASA, seven shuttle flights remain to finish the space station, now 83 percent complete with nearly 700,000 pounds of mass. The next launch, by Discovery, is targeted for the end of August.
On the Net: