The seven astronauts of NASA's shuttle Endeavour are readjusting to Earth's gravity after their marathon construction flight to the international space station.
Shuttle commander Dominic Gorie and his crewmates returned to Earth late Wednesday in a night landing that capped a 16-day flight to the space station, where the astronauts delivered a new Japanese storage room and a Canadian-built robot repairman named Dextre.
"We've had one of the most remarkable missions I could have ever imagined," said Gorie, a four-time shuttle flyer. "Five [spacewalks], a staggering, ambitious flight that we set out for, and it turned out just wonderfully."
Endeavour touched down under darkness on a runway here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center to complete the longest shuttle mission ever sent to the space station. The astronauts also performed five spacewalks, the most ever for a docked shuttle crew, while at the orbiting laboratory.
"Flying over Orlando last night was just spectacular," Gorie said, adding that he and pilot Gregory H. Johnson saw no trace of the cloud deck that thwarted their first landing attempt earlier in the day. "We never passed through any clouds...we had a good clear view of the runway from the point it came through the commander's window."
Returning to Earth with Gorie and Johnson were NASA mission specialists Robert Behnken, Mike Foreman, Rick Linnehan and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi. The astronauts were scheduled to return to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston later today.
French spaceflyer Leopold Eyharts, of the European Space Agency, also landed aboard Endeavour to complete a nearly 49-day trek to the space station. Eyharts launched to the station in early February to deliver the station's ESA Columbus lab and handed his Expedition 16 crew assignment over to NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman — who arrived aboard Endeavour — before returning to Earth.
"It was a strange feeling coming back to gravity after such a long time," Eyharts said via telephone, adding that he may need a couple of days to get back to full strength. "I feel actually well. I think the adaptation is going as was expecting."
Johnson, Behnken and Foreman made their first career spaceflight during Endeavour's STS-123 mission.
"The thing that jumps out at me is the launch," Johnson said of Endeavour's March 11 liftoff. "I couldn't imagine how it was going to be until we actually did it."
For Behnken and Foreman, who participated in three of the mission's five spacewalks, the orbital work outside took center stage.
"I got to climb around on the space station quite a bit," said Behnken, adding that he clambered over the station's new Japanese module and European-built Columbus lab while outside. "The views that I was able to see, looking down on the shuttle, looking down on the Earth, was just remarkable for me."
"I've tried to burn some of those images into my mind, because I know it will seem like a dream here after a few days," Foreman added.
Endeavour's crew constructed the Canadian Space Agency's $209-million Dextre robot during three separate spacewalks, and had to use some elbow grease at times to loose stuck bolts and the automaton's stubborn, 11-foot (3.4-meter) long arms.
"It looked like a giant Transformer to me...it was kind of like this giant arachnid with these arms and legs and booms sticking out everywhere. He even has the semblance of a head," Linnehan said. "It was the robots against the humans and the humans prevailed."
Doi, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut, said he was honored to help deliver the Japanese Logistics Module, a squat cylinder with a 14-foot (4.2-meter) wide interior that will serve as a sort of orbital attic for his country's Kibo laboratory. The main pressurized section for Kibo (Japanese for "Hope") is a massive module the size of a school bus and is scheduled to launch aboard NASA's shuttle Discovery in late May.
To commemorate the first Kibo addition to the ISS, Doi took a selection of Japanese space food, which Gorie and station commander Peggy Whitson lauded as some of the tastiest treats during the docked mission. Doi also took souvenir chopsticks for his crewmates and the space station astronauts, initially as just token gifts.
"I just wanted to just give them to them, but they started using chopsticks in space and it was a good surprise to me," Doi said. "They are very good because there's no gravity. They don't miss anything."