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Astronauts land with families on their minds

The space shuttle Atlantis sailed down through clear skies to a Florida landing on Friday, wrapping up an 11-day mission to the International Space Station and bringing a new father down to meet his week-old daughter.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The space shuttle Atlantis and its seven astronauts returned to Earth with a smooth touchdown Friday to end an "amazing" flight that resupplied the International Space Station.

Within a few hours of landing, the astronauts feasted on turkey and trimmings with their families.

"You go see the doc, you get a turkey dinner. It's a pain," commander Charles Hobaugh told reporters with a smile.

The new father on the crew, Randolph Bresnik, bolted out of NASA's spaceport when the meal was over. He flew home to Houston a day ahead of his crewmates so he could see his newborn daughter and wife, who gave birth Saturday.

With bright sunlight glinting off it, the shuttle swooped through a clear sky and landed right on time. Mission Control said no one could remember such welcoming conditions: no clouds and temperatures in the 50s.

"Couldn't have picked a clearer day," Hobaugh said during the final approach. Mission Control congratulated him on a "picture perfect" touchdown.

"We really had truly an amazing mission," Hobaugh said after exiting Atlantis. The description was later repeated by NASA managers happy to cap off a year of five successful shuttle missions.

Sweet homecoming
It was an especially sweet homecoming for two of the crew: Bresnik, whose second child, Abigail Mae, was born after his first spacewalk, and Nicole Stott, who was away for three months at the space station.

Stott said she felt a little wobbly because of the tug of Earth's gravity, but was thrilled to be with her husband and 7-year-old son.

Hobaugh and his crew spent a week stockpiling the space station. They delivered big spare parts and performed three spacewalks to install equipment and carry out maintenance.

The pumps, gyroscopes and storage tanks should keep the outpost in business for another five to 10 years, long after Atlantis and the two other shuttles are retired.

Atlantis — which brought back broken equipment from the space station's water-recycling system — logged 4.5 million miles (7.2 million kilometers) and circled Earth 171 times.

False alarms
The biggest problem during the 11-day mission was a series of false alarms that woke the astronauts in the middle of the night. The station alarms indicated possible smoke and decompression, and touched off a few frantic minutes for the crews of the linked spacecraft. A clogged filter in a new Russian research chamber was blamed.

Other than that, the flight unfolded extremely well, according to Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations chief.

"We're kind of superstitious in a way and we don't talk too much about when things are going really good," Gerstenmaier said. But with Atlantis safely back, he declared, "This has been a great year for us."

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Among 2009's shuttle missions was the final repair trip to the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA also launched a test flight of its Ares moon rocket, the planned shuttle successor.

This was Atlantis' next-to-last mission. Only five shuttle flights remain, all to the space station next year. Station construction will essentially end at that point, so NASA used the trip to send up as many hefty spare parts as possible. None of the other visiting spacecraft — from Russia, Japan and Europe — can carry so much in a single load.

Atlantis, which delivered nearly 15 tons of gear, left the space station 86 percent complete.

NASA's next shuttle flight is in February. Endeavour will deliver a full-fledged module to the space station, complete with a seven-window cupola for prime Earthgazing.

Meanwhile, NASA kept a close eye on two pieces of space junk due to pass near the space station.

NASA said Friday that flight controllers were monitoring a large piece of an old Delta rocket that could pass within an uncomfortably close six miles (10 kilometers) of the outpost Saturday afternoon. The rocket was used to launch NASA's Stardust spacecraft in 1999 to gather comet dust samples.

On Friday night, NASA mission managers and their Russian counterparts determined that the rocket body would pose no threat — and that the space station would not have to make an avoidance maneuver.

Flight controllers also kept an eye on the remnant of an old shuttle science payload that was projected to come within 8.6 miles (14 kilometers) of the station around 9 a.m. ET Monday. The object wasn't considered a threat, but NASA said it would plan for station maneuver if further tracking raised the level of concern.

This report was supplemented by