March 26, 2008

Space Shuttle Lands Safely After Construction Marathon

This story was updated at 12:28 a.m. March
27 EDT.

shuttle Endeavour and its seven-astronaut crew returned to Earth safely late
Wednesday, hitting the finish line of a construction marathon at the
International Space Station (ISS).

The shuttle touched down at its NASA
runway here at the Kennedy Space Center at about 8:39 p.m. EDT (0039 March 27
GMT), announcing its arrival with twin sonic booms as it descended through the
dark Florida sky.

"Welcome home, Endeavour!" Mission
Control radioed the crew, greeting the astronauts in English, Japanese and
French in honor of the nations they represented.

"It was a super rewarding mission,
exciting from the start to the ending, and we just thank you for all your
help," shuttle commander Dominic Gorie replied.

Gorie and his STS-123 crew performed
five spacewalks to deliver a new
Japanese storage room
and massive Canadian maintenance robot during their
16-day mission, the longest ever to visit the $100-billion space station.

"Five spacewalks was a pretty
daunting task, except for this crew," Gorie said in a televised interview on
Tuesday. "These guys were awesome."

Gorie returned to Earth with shuttle
pilot Gregory H. Johnson, NASA mission specialists Robert Behnken, Mike
Foreman, Rick Linnehan, Japanese astronaut Takao Doi and French
spaceflyer Leopold Eyharts
, who returned after nearly two months aboard the
space station. NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman replaced Eyharts aboard the space

Endeavour launched March 11 and
circled the Earth 249 times, for a total trip of 6.5 million miles (10.4
million km), during its spaceflight. The shuttle returned to Earth under
darkness for NASA's 22nd night landing after thick clouds thwarted an earlier,
daytime touchdown.

"I can't imagine that this mission
could have gone any better," said NASA chief Michael Griffin, adding that the
amount of work accomplished by Endeavour's crew could
have filled two missions. "They made it look easy."

Records galore

Endeavour's STS-123 astronauts not
only set a new record for the longest shuttle flight to the space station, but
also the most spacewalks in a single construction flight.

"I think anytime you have an
ambitious mission like this, you can't help but wonder how it's going to unfold,"
Gorie said before landing. "I knew our chances were good, but you never quite
know for sure until you pull it off."

Together with the
station's three-astronaut Expedition 16 crew, Endeavour astronauts constructed
the Canadian Space Agency's Dextre
maintenance robot
- a $209-million automaton with twin 11-foot (3.4-meter) arms
to perform routine repairs outside the ISS. They also installed the
18,490-pound (8,387-kg) Japan Logistics Pressurized Module, a 14-foot
(4.5-meter) wide room that will serve as the storage attic for Japan's school
bus-sized Kibo laboratory.

"It was a great moment not only for
me, but also for Japan," said Doi, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
astronaut, who delivered the module.

The larger Kibo lab is set to launch
in late May aboard NASA's shuttle Discovery to add yet another room to the now
70 percent complete space station.

Endeavour astronauts also inspected
a balky starboard solar array joint, tested a high-tech caulk gun and
heat-resistant goo for future shuttle heat shield repairs, and stowed the
orbiter's inspection boom outside the ISS during the spaceflight.

"I don't think you could ever pick a
flight that's been more challenging and rewarding," Gorie said before landing.
"It's been a ton of fun."

Their successful return cleared the
orbital track for the European Space Agency's (ESA) first unmanned
cargo ship Jules Verne
, which will make a series of practice docking runs
near the space station before its planned April 3 rendezvous.

Eyharts, an ESA astronaut, hoped to
be aboard the ISS for Jules Verne's arrival, but took heart in his successful
work to activate his space agency's Columbus lab at the station since its
delivery last month. He was looking forward to tasting French food and perhaps
a glass of red wine, he said.

"It would have been great, but I think that I was very lucky, so I won't be
complaining," Eyharts said of missing Jules Verne's arrival. "I am happy to go
back to Earth and this will be a very nice memory for me."

Back on Earth

Some Endeavour astronauts returned
home with more than just precious memories.

Behnken, who is engaged, took his
wedding ring and that of his fiancie along for
Endeavour's flight. Linnehan took a photo of a young boy from New Hampshire -
his home state - who died as a child, but dreamed of being an astronaut.

"I just thought it would be
appropriate. It's kind of something we all dream about as we grow up," Linnehan
said in a televised interview late Tuesday. "So we flew his picture and I'm
going to return that to his parents when I get back."

Endeavour's Wednesday landing
completed the spacecraft's 21st flight and NASA's 122nd shuttle mission. It was
the second of up to six NASA shuttle flights on tap for 2008 and the ninth to
fly since the 2003 Columbia accident.

The fuel tank for Discovery's next launch
arrived here at KSC earlier today, later than planned, and will likely delay
that shuttle's launch by several days past its initial May 25 target, Griffin said. The
agency is also working to streamline the production of new tanks - which include
safety modifications following the 2003 Columbia tragedy - for upcoming flights
to minimize delays for those flights.

NASA plans to launch 11 more shuttle
flights to complete the space station's construction and overhaul the Hubble
Space Telescope by 2010.

"We have truly globalized the ISS at
this point," said NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini.
"It is without a doubt the largest international project ever attempted by