Space shuttle Atlantis streaks back to Earth
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: February 20, 2008; Updated at 12:30 p.m.
Taking advantage of calm weather, the shuttle Atlantis dropped out of orbit and glided to a smooth Florida landing today, closing out an extended 13-day mission to deliver a new European research lab and a French astronaut to the international space station.
Bringing outgoing space station flight engineer Dan Tani back to Earth after 120 days in space, Atlantis commander Steve Frick guided Atlantis through a sweeping 235-degree left overhead turn, lined up on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center and swooped to a picture-perfect touchdown at 9:07:10 a.m.
"Houston, Atlantis, wheels stopped," Frick radioed as the shuttle rolled to a halt.
"Copy, wheels stopped," astronaut Jim Dutton replied from mission control in Houston. "Welcome home, Atlantis, welcome home, Dan, and congrats on delivering (the) Columbus (module) to its new world."
"It's been a great mission," Frick said. "We're extremely happy to be home, it's such a beautiful day in Florida. We can't wait to see our families, who hopefully were all at the (grand)stands here watching. We appreciate all the great help and support from the folks here at Kennedy and all over NASA, and especially at Johnson Space Center, mission control, for keeping us safe when we were airborne and bringing us safely home,"
Mission duration was 12 days 18 hours 21 minutes and 40 seconds, covering 202 complete orbits and 5.3 million miles since blastoff Feb. 7. Bill Gerstenmaier, director of space flight operations at NASA headquarters in Washington. said Tani came through re-entry and the return to Earth's gravity in good shape.
"He's doing great," Gerstenmaier said. "He'll go back to Houston and start some rehabilitation, start doing some weight training, some water training, those kind of things, and eventually get back into a pretty routine lifestyle."
With Atlantis and its seven-member crew safely home, the Pentagon was clear to proceed with plans to destroy a falling spy satellite with a dramatic missile shot from a Navy cruiser west of Hawaii.
The unprecedented intercept had been planned for this evening, but Pentagon officials said this morning high seas near Hawaii threatened to delay the launching. A second opportunity was available Thursday.
Launched in December 2006, the classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite, believed to be an experimental spacecraft intended to test new sensor technologies, suffered a catastrophic malfunction shortly after reaching orbit. It has been out of contact and out of control ever since, slowly falling back to Earth due to the long-term affects of atmospheric friction.
Left on its own, the 5,000-pound NROL-21 spacecraft would re-enter the atmosphere and break apart in mid March. About 2,400 pounds of debris could be expected to survive re-entry and make it all the way to the surface. The risk of injury from satellite debris is considered minimal, but the Bush administration, worried the satellite's full load of toxic, now-frozen hydrazine rocket fuel might make it to the ground, ordered the Navy to attempt a shoot down.
The avoid any risk of debris that might threaten Atlantis and its crew, the shot was held up until Atlantis could return to Earth. Playing it safe, NASA staffed a backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to get the shuttle down today, on one coast or the other. As it turned out, the weather cooperated in Florida and Edwards wasn't needed.
Flying upside down and backward 212 miles above the Indian Ocean, Frick and pilot Alan Poindexter fired Atlantis' twin braking rockets at 7:59:52 a.m. for two minutes and 43 seconds, slowing the ship by about 198 mph to drop out of orbit.
A half hour later, descending through 76 miles above the south Pacific Ocean, Atlantis plunged back into the discernible atmosphere around 8:36 a.m., entering the zone of peak heating a few minutes later.
Following a southwest-to-northeast trajectory that carried the ship high above central America just south of the Yucatan Peninsula, Atlantis skirted the western tip of Cuba before crossing the southwest coast of Florida near Fort Myers.
Frick took over manual control as the shuttle descended through 51,000 feet and dropped below the speed of sound around 9:03 a.m. Approaching the Kennedy Space Center the southwest, he and Poindexter guided the ship through a sweeping left overhead turn to line up on runway 15.
Frick, Poindexter, flight engineer Rex Walheim, Leland Melvin, Stan Love and European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel were expected to doff their pressure suits and climb out of the shuttle an hour or so after touchdown. Tani made the return to Earth strapped into a reclining seat on the shuttle's lower deck and flight surgeons were standing by to provide assistance as needed.
After medical exams and reunions with friends and family members, all seven astronauts were expected to fly back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Thursday.
Tani was launched to the space station aboard the shuttle Discovery last October to help commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko prepare the outpost for the attachment of the European Space Agency's Columbus research module. The new lab module was scheduled to be carried aloft aboard Atlantis in December along with Tani's replacement, French astronaut Leopold Eyharts.
But Atlantis was grounded by problems with hydrogen fuel sensors, Columbus' delivery was held up and Tani's stay in space ultimately was extended for two months. As such, he missed the holidays with his family and was off the planet when his 90-year-old mother was killed in a Dec. 19 car wreck.
After extensive modifications to a suspect fuel sensor wiring connector, Atlantis blasted off at 2:45:30 p.m. on Feb. 7 to kick off the delayed assembly mission.
Over the next 13 days, the astronauts staged three spacewalks, delivered and installed the 26,627-pound Columbus module, two external experiment packages totaling 1,409 pounds and a fresh tank of high-pressure nitrogen for the station's ammonia cooling system that tipped the scales at 1,069 pounds.
The shuttle brought 2,242 pounds of station hardware back to Earth in its cargo bay, including a spent nitrogen tank and a faulty control moment gyroscope. Some 1,299 pounds of supplies and equipment were transferred from the shuttle cabin to the space station, including a new solar alpha rotary joint drive motor, and 1,343 pounds of equipment was moved from the station to the shuttle's cabin for return to Earth.
The astronauts transferred 1,386 pounds of fresh water to the space station, 95 pounds of oxygen and 27 pounds of nitrogen.
"It's great... to be back on the ground here at the Kennedy Space Center on our first try," Frick said from the runway. "As you can see, the weather is gorgeous and it looked just as nice from up high as it does down here. Atlantis is a great ship, it brought us home without any troubles, everything worked just beautifully. We're obviously very excited that our mission is complete and successful, we got everything done that we had hoped to get done."
With Atlantis safely home, NASA engineers will set their sights on launching the shuttle Endeavour March 11 on a marathon 16-day five-spacewalk mission to attach the first of two Japanese research modules to the space station. Endeavour's crew is scheduled to fly to the Florida space center Saturday to participate in a dress-rehearsal countdown Monday.
If all goes well, Endeavour will rocket away around 2:28 a.m. on March 11 and return to Earth around 7:40 p.m. on March 26.
The next flight in the sequence, a mission by Discovery to carry Japan's huge Kibo module to the station, has slipped from the end of April to around May 25 because of unfavorable orbital conditions and time needed to complete external tank processing.
After that, Atlantis is scheduled to return to space Aug. 28 on a long-awaited flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Two more flights, by Endeavour and Discovery in October and December, will ferry supplies to the space station and a final set of solar arrays.