Shuttle Atlantis Returns to Earth Safely
This story was updated at
10:09 a.m. EST.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The
shuttle Atlantis and seven astronauts landed safely back on Earth Wednesday
after a successful mission to deliver Europe’s first permanent orbital laboratory
to the International Space Station (ISS).
With shuttle commander
Stephen Frick at the helm, Atlantis swooped out of the morning sky over NASA’s
Kennedy Space Center (KSC) here and loosed two sonorous sonic booms before
touching down at 9:07 a.m. EST (1407 GMT). The shuttle’s return cleared the way
for the U.S. military to shoot down a
falling spy satellite the size of a bus.
“It’s been a great mission,” Frick said
after landing. “We’re extremely happy to be home and it’s a great day in Florida. We can’t wait to see our families.”
Frick and his crew ferried
a new crewmember to the station during their 13-day
mission. They also delivered the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Columbus
laboratory, a 1.4 billion euro ($2 billion) research module that represents
Europe’s largest contribution to the ISS project.
Returning to Earth aboard
Atlantis with Frick were shuttle pilot Alan Poindexter, mission specialists
Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, Dan Tani and German astronaut Hans
Schlegel, representing the ESA. French
astronaut Leopold Eyharts launched with Atlantis’ STS-122 mission,
but stayed aboard the ISS after relieving Tani as a member of the station’s
Expedition 16 crew.
“We could be the example of
how to tackle bigger problems in the future just in international cooperation,”
said Schlegel, who sat out the first of the STS-122 mission’s three spacewalks
due to an illness but bounced back in time for the second excursion. “It’s a
good feeling to do that.”
Atlantis landed after
circling the Earth 202 times on a trek that covered about 5.3 million miles
(8.5 million km). Aside from Schlegel’s sickness and a few other minor
glitches, the mission — NASA’s first shuttle flight of 2008 — went smoothly.
“It’s certainly been an
awesome, great display for both teams, the shuttle and space station programs,”
said NASA’s LeRoy Cain, chair of Atlantis’ STS-122 mission management team,
before today’s landing. “It’s arguably one of the most successful docked
missions that we’ve had.”
landing gives the U.S. military a clear shot to launch a missile at a dead
reconnaissance satellite from a Navy cruiser in the Pacific Ocean. Pentagon
officials pledged to wait until Atlantis was safely home before destroying
the out-of-control spy satellite to avoid endangering the public on Earth
with the spacecraft’s toxic half-ton load of hydrazine rocket fuel.
European base in space
Europe’s Columbus lab is a
10-ton cylinder that added a new 23-foot (7-meter) long room to the ISS. The
module’s arrival also marked the activation of a new Mission Control center
near Munich, Germany, where flight controllers now oversee the new laboratory
24 hours a day.
“I consider it the
beginning of manned spaceflight for Europe,” Schlegel said during the mission.
“We have the opportunity to do experiments around the clock, all year.”
Eyharts will spend the next
month activating a set of science experiment racks inside Columbus while flight
controllers commission two external payloads installed by Atlantis
spacewalkers. ESA officials are also gearing up to launch Jules Verne, the
agency’s first Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo tug, to the ISS in early March.
Atlantis’ STS-122 mission
is NASA’s first of up to six shuttle flights — five of them aimed at ISS
construction — planned for 2008. The shuttle landed just days after its sister
ship Endeavour reached the launch pad for its own STS-123 mission, which is set
to launch on March 11 to deliver the first segment of Japan’s Kibo laboratory
and a two-armed addition to the station’s robotic arm.
NASA hopes to launch
Atlantis again in late August on the final mission to overhaul the Hubble Space
Telescope. The shuttle set down Wednesday 46 years to the day NASA launched its
first-ever manned orbital flight, with Mercury astronaut John Glenn circling
the Earth three times before landing to conclude the third manned U.S.
For Tani, Wednesday’s
landing marked the end of an extended spaceflight that began in late October
and ran about 120 days. Delays to Atlantis’ planned launch in December extended
his flight by two extra months, during which time his mother Rose was killed in
a car accident.
“I’m very honored to be
given an opportunity to do all these wonderful things,” Tani said as he left
the ISS, calling his mother his “inspiration.” “I feel like I should have
cherished them more as we were doing them, so a little regret.”
In addition to reuniting
with his wife Jane and young daughters Keiko and Lilly, Tani said he looked
forward to reacquainting himself with gravity. He worked out on a treadmill
aboard the ISS and returned to Earth in a reclined position to ease his
“I think that being in a
gravity environment is going to play havoc on my vestibular system like it
always does for most people, and I’ll just have to deal with that,” he said.
Before leaving the ISS,
Tani recollected a day during the joint mission when he floated between the
station and Atlantis toting a video camera to find crewmates exercising and
performing experiments while other astronauts were busy spacewalking outside.
“It was almost like a
promotional video,” he said. “And I thought, ‘We’re almost there.’ We’re doing
science, we’re building huge construction projects, we’re doing [spacewalks] …
it’s just amazing.”
NASA is broadcasting
Atlantis’ STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com’s
shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.