NASA managers decided Thursday to bring U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams back to Earth on an earlier shuttle flight than planned so she doesn't spend more than six months in the cosmos.
Her original return flight from the international space station was scheduled for late June, but a hail storm in February that damaged the space shuttle Atlantis' fuel tank delayed the 2007 schedule by months.
Atlantis, originally due to launch in March, is now scheduled to lift off in early June. Space station and shuttle managers agreed to swap out the station crew members then, instead of on the shuttle Endeavour's June flight as initially planned. Endeavour's flight was pushed back to August.
Williams will be replaced by Clay Anderson as the United States' next space station resident. NASA has had a continuous presence aboard the orbiting space lab since 2000.
About 200 pounds of supplies and maintenance items will be sent to the station on later flights to make room for the crew members and their gear on Atlantis.
NASA likes its astronauts to stay in space no longer than half a year because of the effects of weightlessness on bone and muscle density, and the astronauts' exposure to radiation.
Williams sounded pleased when Mission Control shared the news Thursday afternoon.
"That's pretty good," she said.
This switch means Williams is unlikely to break the U.S. record for continuous time in space, as had been expected — she would have to be in the cosmos until July 13 to do that — but if Atlantis lands as scheduled on June 19, she will set a 192-day record for a female astronaut in space.
William's former crewmate Michael Lopez-Alegria set the U.S. record when he returned to Earth this month after 215 days in space.
The longest stay in space was 437 days by Russian Valeri Polyakov.