Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Shuttle Atlantis Returns to America's Spaceport

Atlantis concluded her thirty-second mission today. (KSC)

Streaking out of the blue Florida sky, shuttle Atlantis returned home to the Kennedy Space Center today concluding twelve days and 186 orbits of the earth.

Atlantis commander Kenneth Ham and pilot Tony Antonelli fired the shuttle's breaking engines to slow the orbiter down by 220 miles to allow the craft to begin her fall out of an orbit 220 miles high.

Atlantis soared into the dawn of an orbital sunrise as she approached Central America just minutes before landing upon America's Space Coast.

A former Air Force pilot, Ham pitched the orbiter's nose up from the craft's steep glide in and Antonelli dropped the landing gear as Atlantis approached the center line of the three mile long runway.

Atlantis' main gear slammed upon runway 33 at a speed of 212 mph at 8:48:11 am EDT, this morning.

Antonelli then deployed the drag chute to help slow the orbiter down to keep the extra stress off the braking system during the rollout.

"It was smooth as silk," Commander Ham stated of the approach into Kennedy. "We were clearly riding in the middle of a fireball, and it was spectacular. The windows, all of them, were bright, brilliant orange. One of the neatest things was when we flew right into orbital sunrise."

For most of the workers who gathered to watch the landing, it fired off a cannon of personal memories of their work with NASA's twenty-five year old spacecraft.

Some at NASA feel that her thirty-second mission will be her final mission, while a select few feel that the space agency's administrator Charles Bolden and President Obama will allow for her to fly the final space shuttle mission.

Technicians will begin today preparing Atlantis for a 'launch on need' flight in support of Endeavour's mission this February -- the final planned space shuttle flight.

As Endeavour launches toward the space station next winter, Atlantis will stand ready in high bay 3 of the vehicle assembly building stacked to her external tank and twin boosters.

If Endeavour is deemed unsafe to return back to earth due to flight damage, Atlantis will be rolled out to her seaside launch pad and launched three weeks later with a crew of four.

A safe return by Endeavour two weeks after her launch could mean one additional final flight by Atlantis a few months later, likely in July 2011, on STS-135. A decision on what direction NASA will take will be known in prior to July 1st.

Mission Specialists Garrett Reisman, Michael Good, Steven Bowen and Piers Sellers round out Atlantis' crew of six veteran astronauts.

Over the last ten days, Atlantis delivered to the International Space Station a new Russian module to the station known as Rassvet. The crew also delivered six fresh batteries for the port 6 truss solar array; a new high gain antenna; over 1,310 pounds of water; and fresh oxygen, nitrogen and supplies to the expanding space station.

Three crew members performed three spacewalks to remove the old batteries and install the new set of six; and install a new Ku-Band antenna to the station.

"We're thrilled because we accomplished the mission that was put in front of us," Ham added today. "We've been hearing stories about how folks have been having fun and enjoyed watching us have fun, and that's really important to us."

The crew is scheduled to depart Florida late on Thursday morning for their homes near Houston.

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