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Touchdown! Atlantis lands in California

Atlantis and its seven astronauts returned to Earth safely Friday, ending a two-week mission to deliver an addition to the international space station and bring a crew member home from the outpost.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Atlantis and its seven astronauts took a cross-country detour and landed safely in the Mojave Desert Friday, ending a two-week mission of construction on the international space station and bring a crew member home from the outpost.

Atlantis’ homecoming was the 51st time a space shuttle touched down at the Edwards Air Force Base since 1981.

“It’s just great to be back on planet Earth,” shuttle commander Rick Sturckow said while standing on the tarmac. “There were a lot of challenges on this mission and they were all dramatic. All the solutions worked well.”

NASA had hoped to bring Atlantis home to Florida, but bad weather two days straight forced them to divert it to California — a move that will cost $1.7 million because the shuttle has to be ferried back to Kennedy Space Center atop a jumbo jet.

NASA’s first manned flight of the year provided a much needed image boost for the space agency. It had been dogged by distractions this year including a bizarre astronaut love triangle and a murder-suicide involving a disgruntled contractor that sullied its reputation.

“It’s a good day for NASA,” NASA associate administrator Rex Gevden said during a post-landing news conference.

Shortly before 1 p.m., Atlantis swooped out of the blazing desert sky and glided down a concrete runway about 80 miles north of Los Angeles. Its return was marked by crackling twin sonic booms that were heard from San Diego to Los Angeles.

“Welcome back,” Mission Control told Atlantis. “Congratulations on a great mission.” Controllers praised the crew for providing a “stepping stone to the rest of NASA’s exploration plan.”

Astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams returned to Earth on Atlantis after spending more than six months at the space station. She set an endurance record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman at 195 days. During her stay, she also set the record for most time spacewalking by a woman.

She told reporters two days before landing that she looked forward to a slice of pizza and walking on the beach with her husband and dog, Gorby. But she was going to miss the space station.

“When you’ve been somewhere for six months, it becomes your home and it’s hard to leave,” Williams said.

Also returning were pilot Lee Archambault and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, James Reilly, Steven Swanson and Danny Olivas. The Atlantis crew declined to speak with reporters.

After touchdown, six of the astronauts stood on the tarmac and examined the shuttle’s underbelly. Archambault said the shuttle was “in great shape.”

Only Williams was not present, fueling speculations about her health. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, insisted Williams was fine. He said he expected her to fly to Houston Saturday with the crew to reunite with their families.

Atlantis delivered a 35,000-pound addition to the space station and Clay Anderson, who replaced Williams as the U.S. representative at the station. He will live with cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov for the next four months.

The last time a shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base was in 2005, the first flight after the Columbia disaster in 2003.

While at the space station, the astronauts installed a new truss segment, unfurled a new pair of power-generating solar arrays and activated a rotating joint that allows the new solar arrays to track the sun.

The shuttle originally had been scheduled to launch in mid-March, but a hail storm a few weeks beforehand forced NASA to scrub that date. The shuttle was moved back to its hangar so that technicians could make repairs to thousands of dings on its external fuel tank.

Atlantis lifted off on June 8 on a 5.8-million mile journey to the space station. NASA hopes to have three more launches this year.

Two days were added to the mission so that Olivas could staple up a thermal blanket that had peeled back during launch. An extra spacewalk — the fourth of the mission — was added to get the task done.

The mission was then extended to 14 days after weather prevented Atlantis from landing on Thursday.

There were some tense moments. Computers that control orientation and oxygen production on the Russian side of the space station crashed while Atlantis was at the outpost, forcing NASA officials to talk publicly about the remote possibility that the station would have to be abandoned because of the problem. Engineers in Houston and Moscow worked around the clock to come up with a fix.

Atlantis’ thrusters helped maintain the station’s orientation until the computers resumed operating last weekend. Some lights, computers and cameras were turned off Atlantis to extend the power supply in case an extra day was needed at the station to give engineers on the ground more time to figure out what went wrong.

The station’s computers were restored when Yurchikhin and Kotov used a cable to bypass a circuit board. The shuttle wasn’t cleared to undock from the station until the computers had passed a test to control thrusters on the station’s Russian side.

During Atlantis’ undocking from the station, a piece of debris was spotted floating away, but was later determined to be harmless. Engineers also concluded that that material known as gap filler that appeared to be sticking out of a wing could withstand the heat and aerodynamics of re-entry.

Atlantis will remain in California for a week before returning to Florida.

Associated Press writers Mike Schneider in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Juan Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.