Video: Weather delays Atlantis' return

updated 5/22/2009 9:31:51 PM ET 2009-05-23T01:31:51

Thunderstorms raking NASA’s spaceport kept the space shuttle Atlantis in orbit an extra day Friday, giving the crew some extra downtime as they aimed for a landing the next day.

After passing up two opportunities to land Friday at Kennedy Space Center, Mission Control thanked the seven astronauts for their patience.

“We know you looked at it hard,” replied commander Scott Altman. A little later, he informed flight controllers, “We’re enjoying the view.”

The astronauts — fresh off successful repairs of the Hubble Space Telescope’s sophisticated instruments — had been warned for days that the weather outlook was grim, and the forecasts proved true.

NASA pressed ahead, instead, with a possible return to the landing site on Saturday morning. But the low-pressure system drenching Florida stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean, and forecasters anticipated only slightly improved conditions over the weekend.

As a precaution, NASA activated its backup touchdown site at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where good weather was expected. But landing there would mean more time and money — an estimated $1.8 million — to get Atlantis back to its Florida home base.

There are three Saturday landing opportunities at both Kennedy Space Center and Edwards Air Force Base, starting at 9:16 a.m. ET.

The shuttle has enough supplies to stay in orbit until Monday.

During the 12-day flight, the astronauts carried out five back-to-back spacewalks to fix and upgrade Hubble for the final time. The 19-year-old observatory is now considered better than ever and should keep sending back breathtaking views of the cosmos for another five to 10 years. Scientists hope to get the first results by September.

Atlantis is also bringing back a wide-field camera that was replaced with a newer model, so it can be put on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

The six men and one woman were the last humans to set eyes on Hubble up close. NASA plans no more satellite-servicing missions of this type, with the space telescope or anything else.

That’s because the shuttle is being retired next year. The replacement craft will essentially be a capsule to ferry astronauts back and forth to the international space station and, ultimately, the moon.

NASA considered this fifth and final Hubble repair mission so dangerous that, in 2004, a year after the Columbia tragedy, it was canceled. The space agency reinstated it two years later after developing repair methods for astronauts in orbit and preparing a backup rescue plan that would have launched a second shuttle to bring astronauts back to earth.

The backup plan that kept the shuttle Endeavour on standby was called off Thursday after one last inspection found Atlantis’ thermal shielding to be free of any serious damage from space junk.

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