March 26, 2008

Endeavour Set for Landing Today in Florida

Favorable weather awaited the space shuttle Endeavour at a Florida landing site as its seven astronauts prepared to return to Earth.

NASA on Tuesday readied the site at the Kennedy Space Center, where partly cloudy skies and light northerly breezes were forecast for the spacecraft's near-sunset landing at 6:05 p.m. CDT today.

During Endeavour's landmark mission to the international space station, Japan became a full member of a 15-nation, American-led partnership that equips and operates the orbital outpost.

The other members include Russia, Canada and an alliance of European countries.

Mission record set

"This has been a fabulous moment for us," said NASA's Mike Suffredini, the space station program manager.

At 16 days, the shuttle's flight set a record for an assembly mission.

It also led the way for the next flight to the station, a mission by the space shuttle Discovery in late May to carry the second piece of Japan's $1 billion science laboratory.

A third shuttle flight will be needed to complete the lab's assembly.

"I'm very happy to be a part of the neighborhood," said Tetsuro Yokoyama , the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's deputy project manager for the lab.

Less certain, though, is the effect that a slowdown in production of the craft's external fuel tanks will have on two upcoming missions.

Currently, the space agency plans a late-August mission by the shuttle Atlantis to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope. But NASA may delay the Hubble flight until October and instead fly a shuttle on another space station assembly mission in August.

"We're on a learning curve," said NASA's LeRoy Cain, a deputy shuttle program manager.

Cain said the fuel tanks' production was slowed by several factors, including a two-month launch delay for repairs of erratic gauges inside the tanks and additional down time to make continuing safety upgrades in the aftermath of the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

The Hubble mission will require two external tanks. The space agency plans to prepare the Atlantis to carry out the mission, and the Endeavour will be poised to lift off on a rescue mission if there is a problem.

The space agency now counts the space station as 70 percent complete, including the additions of two European modules as well as a section of the Japanese lab since October.

Jules Verne link-up

Another European element, the first in a new line of unmanned space station cargo ships christened the Jules Verne, is on the way to the space station as well.

The capsule, launched from French Guiana on March 8 with fuel, food, water, clothing and other supplies, has been circling the Earth about 750 miles from the space station.

The Jules Verne, named for the 19th century science fiction writer, is scheduled to dock with the space station's Russian segment on April 3.

However, the link-up depends on the outcome of two crucial test maneuvers scheduled for Saturday and Monday. A European flight-control center in Toulouse, France, and the space station's crew both will demonstrate their abilities to avoid a collision.

If the mission is a success, the Europeans plan to send up five cargo missions by 2015.


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