Back on Earth: Atlantis Shuttle Crew Lands Safely After Succesful Flight - 7 Astronauts Return to Earth

Seven NASA astronauts and the shuttle Atlantis returned safely to Earth Friday after a successful mission to boost the power grid aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

After one delayed attempt, Atlantis touched down in the California desert for a 3:49:38 p.m. EDT (1949:38 GMT) landing on a backup runway at Edwards Air Force Base.

“It’s great to be back on planet Earth right now,” Atlantis shuttle commander Rick Sturckow said after landing.

Sturckow and his STS-117 crewmates delivered a $367.3 million pair of trusses and new solar arrays to the space station’s starboard side and stowed away an older solar wing atop the outpost during their 14-day mission.

“You got to love that symmetrical space station,” pilot Lee Archambault said during the flight, which evened out the station’s previous off-kilter profile.

The astronauts also aided in the recovery of critical Russian computer systems aboard the ISS and swapped out one of the orbital laboratory’s three-person Expedition 15 crew. Their four spacewalks included the repair of a torn thermal blanket – using surgical staples – on Atlantis’ left aft engine pod.

Atlantis’ landing ended a more than 5.7 million-mile (9.2 million-kilometer) trip and 219 orbits around Earth for its STS-117 crew. The shuttle’s return came one day late after persistent rain showers prevented Florida landings on Thursday and earlier today.

Back on Earth

Back on Earth: Atlantis Shuttle Crew Lands Safely After Succesful Flight - 7 Astronauts Return to Earth

Returning to Earth aboard Atlantis with Sturckow were shuttle pilot Lee Archambault and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, Steven Swanson, James Reilly II, Danny Olivas and Sunita Williams, a former Expedition 15 flight engineer.

Williams spent just over 194 days in space – a world record for a female astronaut – and turned her ISS post over to fellow NASA spaceflyer Clayton Anderson during the STS-117 mission.

“I hope I can carry on and do half as well as she did on orbit,” said Anderson, who is due to return to Earth in October, before Williams left the station.

After more than six months in space, Williams said she’d miss the station and her Expedition 15 crewmates – commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Oleg Kotov – but was ready to return to her family and beloved dog Gorby.

“I’m looking forward to going to the beach and hopefully taking a walk with my husband and my dog,” Williams told reporters before landing. “And I can’t wait for a big piece of pizza.”

During her mission, Williams ran the Boston Marathon from orbit and exercised regularly in order to cope with her return to Earth’s gravity today. She underwent an extra series of medical checkups after landing because of her long-duration flight, NASA said.

“I’ve worked as hard as I think anybody can work up here physically,” Williams said before leaving the station. “So, we’ll just see how it goes.”

Today’s landing marked the 12th at Edwards Air Force Base for Atlantis and the spacecraft’s first since NASA’s STS-98 mission in 2001, when the orbiter delivered the U.S. Destiny module to the ISS. It is NASA’s 51st shuttle mission to land at Edwards Air Force Base.

The last shuttle to use the backup runway was Discovery, which touched down in August 2005.

“It’s a great place to land the shuttle,” Archambault said after landing.

More challenges ahead

The successful flight of Atlantis’ STS-117 crew primed the space station’s power grid to support the addition of NASA’s new connecting node Harmony and the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory, both of which are slated to launch later this year.

In addition to installing the new Starboard 3/Starboard 4 (S3/S4) trusses, STS-117 spacewalkers also furled the sole remaining solar array extending from the station’s mast-like Port 6 (P6) truss. Stowing that array brought P6 one step closer towards its eventual relocation to the station’s port-most end on a later shuttle flight, NASA said.

“It truly is the first really permanent international human outpost in space,” Reilly told reporters Wednesday of the station. “It’s our first real step off the planet.”

Michael Suffredini, NASA’s ISS program manager, said the mission also completed the delivery and activation of intricate joints to rotate the station’s wing-like starboard and port solar arrays. With the installation of the S3 segment, the Mobile Transporter railway that allows the station’s robotic arm to traverse the length of the orbital laboratory’s metallic backbone-like main truss is also complete, he added.

“We do have a lot of assembly left,” Suffredini said, adding that many the tasks ahead have been performed before. “We [are] probably, from a risk perspective, over 60 percent past the point where I think we’ve got really new things to learn.”

NASA plans at least 12 more shuttle missions to the ISS to complete the orbital laboratory’s assembly, with two additional flights possible to deliver cargo, equipment and other logistics. One non-ISS bound shuttle flight, set to launch in September 2008, is planned to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope.

“It took a lot of work to get this equipment up here,” said Sturckow, who also on NASA’s first shuttle flight for ISS construction. “It kind of takes your breath away to think about how hard it is to do all this.”

Thursday’s landing completed NASA’s 118th shuttle mission – the 21st to the ISS – and the 28th spaceflight for Atlantis itself. The shuttle will now be prepared for a jumbo jet ferry flight from California to KSC, a trip that typically takes between seven to 10 days and costs about $1.7 million, NASA officials said. Source: space