Atlantis Shuttle Crew Prepares for Landing
A camera mounted to the exterior of the International Space Station caught this view of the shuttle Atlantis after its June 19, 2007 undocking during NASA's STS-117 mission.
Credit: NASA TV.

HOUSTON -- The astronaut crew of NASA?s shuttle Atlantis is gearing up for a planned Thursday landing after a successful construction flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

?It?s been a great mission,? Atlantis shuttle commander Rick Sturckow told mission control late Tuesday.

Sturckow and his six STS-117 crewmates are concluding a 13-day mission to the ISS, where outfitted the orbital laboratory with new starboard solar arrays and trusses, hauled in an older solar wing and swapped out a member of the Expedition 15 crew.

The astronauts undocked from the ISS Tuesday and flew around the station to take photographs of its new symmetrical shape.

?We refer to this as our TIE fighter video,? joked Cathy Koerner, lead STS-117 flight director, the similarity between the station?s new look and Star Wars fighters from afar.

The shuttle crew is due to land Thursday at 1:54 p.m. EDT (1754 GMT) on a runway at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, though forecasts of showers and clouds through Friday could delay Atlantis? Earth return, Koerner said. The shuttle has enough supplies to last through Sunday, though Saturday would be the deadline for landing unless an unforeseen technical glitch occurred, she added.

?Get us some good weather for Thursday if you can,? Sturckow told Mission Control late Tuesday. ?It doesn?t have to be good. It just has to be good enough.?

Today, the crew will conduct a standard flight control systems check of Atlantis to make sure Atlantis is ready to once more fly though the Earth?s atmosphere. A test of the orbiter?s reaction control thrusters is also on tap.

Overnight, NASA image analysts were studying data from a standard second survey of the heat-resistant carbon composite panels lining Atlantis? wing edges and nose cap in order to give the STS-117 a final go for Thursday?s planned landing.

The so-called late inspection, conducted by the STS-117 crew using the shuttle?s robotic arm and its sensor-tipped extension, scans for damage by orbital debris or micrometeorites.

NASA engineers were also studying video of a white object that appeared to float away from the ISS from the vantage point of a camera aboard Atlantis to determine whether it actually came from the station or the orbiter itself, though mission managers said Tuesday that it was not a big concern.

Sturckow and his crew also relayed video to Mission Control of washer used to secure blankets in Atlantis? payload bay drifting from the orbiter after undocking.

Returning to Earth

Included among Atlantis? Earth-bound astronaut crew is U.S. spaceflyer Sunita Williams, who until recently served as the sole American member of the space station?s Expedition 15 crew.

?She was just great fun to have on orbit,? ISS program manager Mike Suffredini, adding that Williams made a point to invite Mission Control to access the station?s onboard video cameras often. ?You really got a sense that you were part of the crew with her.?

Williams joined the station?s Expedition 14 crew in December 2006 during NASA?s last shuttle mission and stayed on for part of Expedition 15 in April. As of today, Williams has spent about 192 unbroken days in space and is setting a new record for the longest spaceflight by a female astronaut.

Williams and the STS-117 crew will set up a recumbent seat - rather than an upright on - to ease her transition back to the tug of Earth?s gravity after six months in weightlessness. She said Tuesday that she?s taken a special effort in recent days to exercise, with some sessions aimed at her heart.

?It?s one of the muscles that gets a little bit weaker up here in space because it doesn?t have to work so hard,? Williams said while narrating a daily STS-117 video reel.

Williams handed her Expedition 15 post over to fellow U.S. astronaut Clayton Anderson, who launched aboard Atlantis and is due to stay on through late October.

?It was my home for six months and a pretty emotional event,? Williams said of watching the ISS drop away Tuesday after undocking. ?But I?m happy to be coming back to Earth.?

NASA is broadcasting the space shuttle Atlantis' STS-117 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for mission updates and
SPACE.com's video feed.

  • SPACE.com Video Interplayer: Space Station Power Up with STS-117
  • IMAGES: Atlantis Shuttle?s STS-117 Launch Day
  • Complete Shuttle Mission Coverage