Atlantis' seven astronauts reunited with their families in Texas on Saturday, a day after the space shuttle capped a two-week mission with a perfect landing in the Mohave Desert. Sunita "Suni" Williams was especially happy to return to Earth after spending more than six months at the international space station.
"This gravity thing takes a bit getting used to," she said moments after landing with the rest of the crew on a NASA Gulfstream jet around 2:45 p.m. at Ellington Field.
Williams set an endurance record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman at 195 days, as well as the record for most time spacewalking by a woman.
"It's just the time and the place," said Williams, noting she hopes her mission paves the way for more women to travel to space, during a 20-minute ceremony in an open hanger.
The crew was assembled on a stage with a giant American flag as the backdrop. Along with Williams were shuttle commander Rick Sturckow, pilot Lee Archambault and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, James Reilly, Steven Swanson and Danny Olivas. Each offered his thanks to family, ground crew and others in brief remarks.
Williams said she would spend the rest of the weekend getting reacquainted with her husband and dog, Gorby.
The homecoming was delayed by a day when NASA rerouted the shuttle from Florida to California because of bad weather. That diversion is expected to 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.
The mission certainly wasn't dull.
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.
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.
At one point, 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 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.
"It just feels great to have all this behind us," Sturckow said during the ceremony.
Atlantis lifted off 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.