Space shuttle makes rare nighttime landing
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Endeavour and its six astronauts returned safely to Earth on Sunday, making a rare nighttime landing to end a mission that resulted in the virtual completion of the International Space Station.
The shuttle’s on-time arrival took some by surprise. All day, forecasters said rain and clouds probably would scuttle any touchdown attempts. But the rain stayed away and the sky cleared just in time.
“It’s great to be home. It was a great adventure,” commander George Zamka said after the shuttle rolled to a stop on the 3-mile-long runway, awash in xenon lights.
During their mission – which spanned two weeks and 5.7 million miles – the astronauts delivered and installed a new space station room, Tranquility, and a big bay window with sweeping views of the Earth.
Upon touchdown, Mission Control immediately relayed congratulations to Zamka and his crew for connecting Tranquility and opening up those new “windows to the world.”
“Welcome home,” Mission Control radioed.
This was the 23rd space shuttle landing in darkness, out of 130 flights. The last time was in 2008, by Endeavour as well.
Tranquility already is serving as a base for life-support equipment, as well as a gym and restroom. It also holds the seven-windowed dome, quite possibly the most anticipated addition ever made to a spacecraft.
The 10 men and one woman on the shuttle-station complex couldn’t get enough of the views out those windows, once the shutters were raised last week.
In fact, at least one of the space station residents, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, watched Endeavour’s atmospheric re-entry from the new dome. “The view was definitely out-of-the-world,” he wrote in a Twitter update.
The two new compartments were supplied by the European Space Agency at a cost of more than $400 million. Their addition brought the 11-year-old space station to 98 percent completion.
All that’s left now are four shuttle flights to stock the space station with more experiments, spare parts and supplies. Discovery will make the next trip in early April.
As for Endeavour, this was its next-to-last mission. It’s supposed to return to orbit, one last time, at the end of July.
NASA plans on wrapping up the shuttle program this fall, after which the space station will be supplied by craft from Russia, Europe and Japan. Astronauts will be hitching rides exclusively on Russian Soyuz capsules, while cargo will arrive on unmanned carriers. The Obama Administration is proposing that commercial rocket companies take a crack at the U.S. ferry side of it, once the three remaining shuttles are retired.
As if to signal the end, Endeavour had no returning space station crew on board.
Over at the space station, meanwhile, computer trouble triggered temporary communication blackouts Sunday.
The station’s three command and control computers kept malfunctioning throughout the morning, disrupting communication between the crew and Mission Control. Until full contact was restored in late afternoon, the five astronauts had to make do without e-mail and their Internet Protocol phone.
Flight controllers suspect the trouble may be related to computer software in Europe’s Columbus laboratory.
To make up for all the inconvenience, Mission Control is giving the crew Wednesday off.