Spaceflight Now: Space Station/STS-98

Atlantis takes detour to Mojave Desert landing

Posted: February 20, 2001


Running two days late, the shuttle Atlantis dropped out of a cloudy Mojave Desert sky and glided to a smooth landing today at Edwards Air Force Base to wrap up an extended space station assembly flight.

Space shuttle Atlantis makes a safe touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base in California today at 2033 GMT (3:33 p.m. EST). Photos: Spaceflight Now/NASA TV
"Wheels stopped, Houston," shuttle skipper Kenneth Cockrell radioed as Atlantis slowed to a stop on the runway centerline.

"Atlantis, Houston, welcome back to Earth after placing our Destiny in space," replied astronaut Scott Altman from mission control at the Johnson Space Center.

Touchdown on runway 22 at the fabled Mojave Desert test complex came at 3:33:05 p.m. EST, wrapping up an extended 13-day voyage spanning 5.3 million miles and 202 complete orbits since blastoff Feb. 7 from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Mission elapsed time at main gear touchdown was 12 days 21 hours 20 minutes and three seconds.

Cockrell and his crewmates - pilot Mark Polansky, flight engineer Marsha Ivins and spacewalkers Robert Curbeam and Thomas Jones - had hoped to land at the Kennedy Space Center.

But high crosswinds Sunday and Monday and low clouds drifting on shore today forced the crew to head for California instead. Conditions at Edwards were a bit overcast with a stiff 23-knot headwind, but Cockrell appeared to have no problems with today's landing.

It was the 85th daylight landing in shuttle history, the 47th overall at Edwards and the 42nd daytime touchdown in California. Two of the last three shuttle missions have now ended at Edwards.

It will take shuttle engineers about a week to prepare Atlantis for a cross-country piggyback ride to Florida atop NASA's 747 shuttle transport jet.

NASA tries to avoid landing shuttles in California if at all possible because it costs about $1 million to haul them back to the Kennedy Space Center and adds one to two weeks to the time needed to ready a ship for launch on its next mission.

Atlantis is scheduled for launch June 8 on a flight to deliver the space station's main airlock. Shuttle program manager Ronald Dittemore said today's California landing will delay that flight by a week to 10 days.

Back at the Kennedy Space Center, meanwhile, the shuttle Discovery sits atop pad 39B awaiting liftoff March 8 to ferry the space station's second full-time crew into orbit.

Discovery also will carry a pressurized Italian-built logistics module packed with supplies and the first set of experiments bound for the newly installed Destiny laboratory module.

The international space station backdropped against Rio Negro, Argentina following undocking Friday. Photo: NASA
The $1.38 billion lab module was installed by Atlantis' crew Feb. 10 during the first of three spacewalks by Jones and Robert Curbeam.

The shuttle crew, working with station commander William Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, spent the next five days activating the lab's computer systems and completing its internal and external outfitting. "This mission really was a major milestone for all of us, not only for the shuttle program but for the station program, too," Dittemore said. "Getting the lab up and working as part of the overall space station is a tremendous accomplish, and we've been looking forward to doing that for many years.

"If you think about it, the lab really is the keystone to the entire station. It brought with it not only additional research capability but the attitude control capability with control moment gyros, it took a lot of pressure off the propellant systems. ... It sets the real stage for us to build additional capability into the future."

Atlantis as seen by the international space station crew during undocking. Photo: NASA
The shuttle undocked Friday, the astronauts packed up Saturday and made their first attempt to land in Florida on Sunday. But crosswinds gusting to 20 knots or so - five knots over NASA's safety limit - forced entry flight director Leroy Cain to order a 24-hour delay.

Rain and low clouds ruled out a landing Monday at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and another day of blustery crosswinds nixed two more attempts on successive orbits to land in Florida.

The shuttle had enough fuel, electrical power and on-board supplies to stay in orbit until Wednesday in a worst-case scenario.

But NASA managers, not wanting to gamble on the weather Wednesday when no other options would remain, pulled out all the stops to get Atlantis back to Earth - somewhere - today.

Flight controllers even reserved the option of diverting Atlantis to Northrup Strip near White Sands, N.M., if no other landing sites were available. NASA has used Northrup just once, for the third shuttle landing in 1982, and it is held in reserve strictly as a last-resort.

As it turned out, it was not needed. Despite initial concerns about the possibility of low clouds developing over Edwards, the weather turned out to be acceptable, if a bit overcase, and astronaut Brian Duffy, flying a NASA jst at the air base, reported good conditions on approaches to runway 22.

The belly of Atlantis with its black heat-protection tiles are seen in this rare underside view of the shuttle during undocking last week as photographed by the station crew. Photos: NASA
Flying upside down and backward over the Indian Ocean, Cockrell and pilot Mark Polansky fired Atlantis' twin orbital maneveuvering system braking rockets at 2:27 p.m. for two minutes and 43 seconds, slowing the spacecraft by about 218 mph.

That was enough to drop the shuttle's orbit on the far side of the planet - over Southern California - deep into the atmosphere. A half-hour later, Atlantis hit the discernible atmosphere 407,000 feet above the southern Pacific Ocean.

The shuttle approached Edwards from the southwest, streaking high above Los Angeles before Cockrell guided the shuttle through a 210-degree right turn to line up on runway 22.

Cockrell and his crewmates planned to spend the night at Edwards and to fly back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston early Wednesday for reunions with friends and family members.

Video vault
Atlantis touches down on Runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base in California to conclude a highly successful mission.
  PLAY (606k, 51sec QuickTime file)
A camera positioned on the north side of Runway 22 provides a dramatic view of space shuttle Atlantis' landing.
  PLAY (541k, 41sec QuickTime file)

Landing track
See the path Atlantis followed during its return to Earth Tuesday in our STS-98 Landing Tracker.

EAFB Orbit 202 - touchdown in California at 2033 GMT.

Status Summary

See the Status Center for full play-by-play coverage.