Having sailed in space for the past two weeks to install the European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus science lab on the International Space Station, the crew of space shuttle Atlantis came home to Houston on Thursday. Despite the overcast skies, a crowd of their mission training and team members, friends and, perhaps most importantly to them, their families, gathered to greet the seven astronauts for a homecoming celebration.
"What a great scene to see all of you who came out in less than desirable weather," said STS-122 mission pilot Alan Poindexter of the rain falling just outside the hangar at Ellington Field.
"We really appreciate you coming out on maybe not the prettiest day of the winter," added commander Stephen Frick. "It just makes us feel good to know that people are watching us and thinking about us and happy that we're home, and we are happy to be home."
"Let me tell you, it's been a long time training and even though the mission goes by in a blur, it's a long and it's a busy mission. It's a great relief to have it complete and successful, and have the Columbus module up there and working on the space station and for all of us to be back home safe," said Frick.
An international success
The nearly 13-day flight highlighted the multi-nation effort that has resulted in the assembly of the space station. In addition to the European lab, which was joined with U.S. and Russian components already on orbit, the six-person crew used Canadian-built robotic arms to move Columbus from the shuttle's payload bay to its berth on the outpost.
"Pulling the hand controllers, it was so smooth. I couldn't believe how smooth it was," described mission specialist Leland Melvin, who operated the station's "big arm".
Three spacewalks were also needed to ready the lab, which was named after the 15th century Genoan explorer, to outfit it with exterior-mounted science experiments, and to replace a nitrogen tank used for cooling the ISS.
"It was very challenging and we had three challenging spacewalks but fortunately we had the best team in the business to get us ready for it and to execute it," said Rex Walheim, who performed all three of the excursions.
Walheim was joined by first-time flyer Stan Love on two of the spacewalks and ESA astronaut Hans Schlegel for the other, though that order was originally planned to be flipped. A "crew medical issue" had Love take Schlegel's place on the mission's first spacewalk.
"He was faced with having to jump into an EVA in the last minute that he had seen on the ground, but hadn't really trained on, and just did a wonderful job with Rex to get EVA 1 complete," Frick commented about Love's work.
"He took my first EVA and fulfilled it as I couldn't have done it better," said Schlegel, who recovered in time to make the flight's second spacewalk as he was scheduled to do. "Nobody has been more glad and more relieved that everything worked so flawlessly and performed so nicely."
Though the nature of Schlegel's illness wasn't disclosed, Love said that the tables could have easily been turned.
"I can only say that it could have just as easily been you that had to take my place and I am sure you would have done it better than I," he replied to Schlegel's comments.
Despite his slight setback, Schlegel was proud of his and his crewmates success on the mission.
"Of course, me as the European, as a German, and here I speak for Leopold [Eyharts] as well, who was part of our ascent team as a French-European, it was a tremendous feeling of pride," he said of launching Columbus, Europe's first long duration crewed space platform. "We installed the external payloads, we outfitted it, we activated it, we worked on the experiments and more over, we even did some maintenance repair work on station," said Schlegel.
"It is truly an effort that goes beyond country boundaries. It just spans over the whole world of which we travel around in 90 minutes. That is really something that builds up in your heart, in your stomach, wherever you're feeling is at home."
- VIDEO: Atlantis Returns Home
- GALLERY: STS-122 Launch Day Images
- VIDEO: Installing the Columbus Module