Wednesday, June 01, 2011
Gliding out of earth orbit and into the blackness of a Florida night sky, shuttle Endeavour returned home to the Kennedy Space Center today completing her twenty-fifth and final space flight.
Endeavour's all veteran crew of commander Mark Kelly, pilot Greg Johnson and mission specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and Italian Roberto Vittori of the European Space Agency, dropped out orbit after traveling 6,510,000 miles during nearly sixteen days.
As Endeavour soared high over the space center, her sister ship was on the move toward her launch pad in preparation for the final space shuttle flight.
Endeavour touched down on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center at 2:34:51 a.m. EDT, as her main gear hit the three mile strip at 210 m.p.h.
Johnson then released the drag chute to help slow the space craft down as Kelly gently lowered the nose gear.
Endeavour rolled to a stop at 2:35:36 a.m., completing 248 orbits of the earth on this her final flight.
"Welcome home, Endeavour," Mission Control radioed Endeavour's crew as she stopped.
"You know, the space shuttle is an amazing vehicle," commander Kelly radioed Mission Control. "To fly through the atmosphere, hit it at Mach 25. I mean steer through the atmosphere like an airplane, land on a runway like an airplane it is really, really an incredible ship."
"On behalf of my entire crew, I want to thank every person who's worked to get this mission going and every person that's worked on Endeavour. It's sad to see her land for the last time, but she really has a great legacy," Kelly added.
In normal dramatic style, NASA's infrared television showed normal exhaust from venting power units at the base of the vertical stabilizer.
NASA's fifth operational shuttle and the replacement for Challenger, Endeavour was the craft used on the first repair flight of the Hubble Space Telescope; and was the first to visit the new International Space Station as she brought up the first American segment and connected it with the first Russian module in 1998.
It was the completion of a sixteen day mission to the International Space Station which saw the delivery of an experiment sixteen nations will use to study the dark matter and solar wind in our solar system, four spacewalks to hook of cooling lines from American modules to a Russian module; and the resupply and the outpost with fresh goods for the crew and extra spare parts and equipment.
Astronauts outside the station handed over Endeavour's extension boom to the station to extend the outpost's reach another fifty feet giving the robotic arm a 100-foot reach for robotics work.
Prior to leaving orbit, Kelly called down to Mission Control asking about an earlier issue with right nose landing gear #2 tire pressure sensor which cropped up on launch day.
Mission control waved off the issue and "masked" that sensor so that an alarm would not sound before landing.
The shuttle's twin engines were fired for nearly three minutes prior to landing at 1:29:44 a.m. to slow the spacecraft down by 295 feet per second, and begin her free fall out of orbit and toward the earth's atmosphere.
As the shuttle's orbit decayed, Kelly flipped Endeavour's nose forward 138-degrees to bring the belly down toward earth with the nose pitched up for re-entry minutes later.
The orbiter then began to hit the atmosphere nearly 400,000 feet above the southern Pacific Ocean and 5,100 miles from her runway at 2:03 a.m.
The nineteen year old spacecraft flew high over southern Mexico at a speed of Mach 18, and out over the southern Gulf of Mexico at Mach 12 before making landfall over Fort Myers, Florida.
As Endeavour flew over the Gulf, her speed continued to slow down as she performed a second roll turn to bleed off energy.
With a pitch black horizon, Kelly and Johnson guided Endeavour toward the Atlantic Coastline for one final turn into the runway.
Sonic booms at 2:31 a.m. then sounded heralding Endeavour's homecoming as the powerless orbiter dropped from an altitude of seven miles high.
Endeavour's last flight also marked a milestone on human space duration.
Fincke became the American with the most time spent in space with 382 days now spent in space upon Endeavour's return today.
In all, Endeavour traveled 122,853,151 miles during her twenty-five missions, and made 4,671 revolutions of the earth during her storied career. Endeavour's time in space ended at 299 days as well.
This morning's landing means only one final space shuttle flight remains for NASA, who completed sending Atlantis to her launch pad an hour following Endeavour's return.
Lift-off of NASA's 135th and final space shuttle flight is targeted for June 8 at 11:38 a.m.