- NASA - space - space shuttle
AFP - The shuttle Endeavour descended safely to Earth on Friday, ending a successful 16-day assembly mission to the international space station with the final piece of Japan's Kibo science laboratory.
The seven US, Canadian and Japanese astronauts aboard Endeavour touched down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:48 am EDT.
There were concerns that early morning thunder storms, coastal rain showers and fog near the Florida landing site might force shuttle commander Mark Polanski and his crew to postpone their return until Saturday.
However, the stormy conditions improved after daybreak, allowing Endeavour to begin its high speed descent to Earth.
Endeavour's crew includes Koichi Wakata, Japan's first long duration astronaut. He returned to Earth after 138 days in space, spent mostly aboard the space station carrying out experiments in Kibo.
"Welcome home, congratulations on a superb mission from beginning to end," said Mission Control, as the shuttle rolled to a stop on the Florida runway under sunny skies.
"That's what it's all about," said Polansky, who shared the controls with pilot Doug Hurley for the landing. "We are happy to be home."
The shuttle astronauts delivered and installed the last major piece of the one billion dollar Japanese research complex, the largest and most capable of the station's three primary science modules.
The new open platform for external science experiments was fastened to the primary research enclosure and a equipment stowage chamber that were launched last year.
The astronauts also furnished the new platform with an X-ray telescope, an environmental monitor and a communications device to link the space station lab with Japan's mission control in Tsukuba.
Four of the astronauts carried out five long spacewalks in which they equipped the oldest of the station's outstretched solar power modules with new storage batteries and stowed away an assortment of large external spare parts.
Both activities were intended to ensure that the station functions beyond the planned retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet, now planned for late 2010.
Endeavour dropped off American astronaut Tim Kopra at the orbital outpost, where he joined five Russian, Canadian and European fliers. Kopra, who is making his first trip to space, is scheduled to return to Earth aboard the shuttle Discovery in early September.
Polanski, Hurley and Wakata were joined aboard Endeavour by mission specialists Julie Payette of Canada as well as Chris Cassidy, Tom Marshburn and David Wolf.
All seven planned to spend the night at Kennedy undergoing routine medical exams and meeting with family before returning to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Meanwhile, NASA is preparing the shuttle Discovery for an Aug 25 mission that is scheduled to last 11 days.
Discovery's astronauts will deliver research equipment, medical gear and other supplies to the orbital outpost. With the looming retirement of NASA's shuttle fleet, seven missions remain.