SCIENCE: Space shuttle Atlantis lands
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.: The space shuttle Atlantis landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, wrapping up an 11-day mission to the International Space Station that impressed one astronaut as “a magical place” and an “island in the sky.”
The six Atlantis astronauts, working side-by-side with the three-person space station crew, added a new $390 million truss segment to the orbiting station during the mission.
The 45-foot (13.7-metre) girder-like assembly, outfitted with computers, communications systems and a sophisticated radiator to cool the station, is part of what will become a football-field-length truss that supports massive solar panels to power the station’s laboratories and life-support system.
But as British-born astronaut Piers Sellers made clear, the experience transcended the hardware, the measurements and even the accomplishments.
“Somehow I think we all step at right angles to our normal reality and we go to this island in the sky,” Sellers told reporters several hours after landing. “Experientially, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen or even dreamt of before. Things float, you’re climbing underneath structures like a spider underneath a gutter. It’s a magical place.”
The space station crew got a chance to watch the shuttle landing live through a video relayed by Mission Control.
“If you want to watch the black-and-white, 200,000-pound (90,000-kg) hypersonic glider coming home, carrying your visitors, we will be patching you up,” Mission Control told the station crew.
The weather at the landing site surprised NASA, which had forecast perfection. But in the hour it took the shuttle to fall out of orbit, stiff crosswinds materialized.
The shuttle commander, U.S. Navy Capt. Jeffrey Ashby, had to fight gusts of 15 knots as he made for the three-mile (4.8-km) runway in Florida.
Ashby said the shuttle “can handle a lot more than that, I can tell you, but the workload goes up for the pilot.”
‘We could bust our buttons’: His second-in-command, U.S. Air Force Col. Pamela Melroy, said he was being modest. “We’re so proud of him we could bust our buttons,” she said, speaking for the crew. “He just, we think, probably landed in the highest crosswind the shuttle has ever landed in, and he was just a foot (30 cm) or two off the center line. It was perfect.”
Atlantis was launched on Oct. 7 following weeks of delay caused first by tiny cracks in its engine compartment and then a threatening hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.
With Ashby and Melroy were flight engineer Sandra Magnus, spacewalkers Sellers and David Wolf, who spent more than 19 hours outside the space station connecting the newest segment, and Russian mission specialist Fyodor Yurchikhin.
This 111th mission of the shuttle program may have given the public its best idea yet of what it is to fly aboard the winged spacecraft.
A camera mounted on the shuttle’s external fuel tank beamed back live images of the liftoff and early minutes of flight from the shuttle’s perspective.
‘It was so cool’: That was augmented by a voluble and often emotional crew. Rookie astronauts Magnus and Sellers narrated a video of their ride into space.
Sellers described the last minute or so of the ride as “mostly uncomfortable.” Magnus said that as soon as she experienced weightlessness, “I just started giggling because it was so cool.”
And there was a tearful farewell as the Atlantis astronauts said goodbye to their colleagues on the station, American Peggy Whitson and Russians Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschyov.
The space station crew, designated Expedition 5, is scheduled to spend another month on the station. The shuttle Endeavour already is on its launch pad, being readied to take another truss segment and the Expedition 6 crew to the station.
Future launches to the station have been thrown into doubt by the explosion of an unmanned Russian Soyuz rocket on Tuesday.
A Russian news agency quoted an unnamed Russian space agency official on Friday saying that would delay the Oct. 28 launch of a manned Soyuz mission to the station. That Russian mission was to end just days before Endeavour’s launch, and a postponement could force a delay for Endeavour. —Reuters