Atlantis Returns Home in Dramatic Fashion
After a two-day trip from California, the wheels of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or SCA, with space shuttle Atlantis secured to its back, contact runway 15 at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility.
Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

It took about nine minutes for shuttle Atlantis to rocket into orbit last month for a historic final visit to the Hubble Space Telescope.

On Tuesday evening, the shuttle orbiter took its time returning home to Kennedy Space Center, treating local residents and visitors to a low-flying cruise down and back up the Space Coast before sunset atop a 747 jumbo jet.

"It was really amazing," said 18-year-old Mary Varuska, who ran to a Cocoa Beach balcony after hearing the jet's roar and saw crowds of people watching. "I didn't realize how small the space shuttle looked, in comparison to the plane."

A 6:53 p.m. landing on KSC's three-mile runway capped a two-day ferry flight that took the piggybacked aircraft from the Joshua trees of Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert back to the palm trees of Merritt Island.

Atlantis ended its 13-day Hubble servicing mission in California on May 24, after consecutive days of rain prevented a landing in Florida.

The mission "was difficult from start to finish," said Angie Brewer, the NASA manager who oversaw Atlantis' preparation for flight, which included a seven-month delay because of a computer failure on the telescope.

But it was a success, with a crew of seven astronauts completing all their planned upgrades and repairs to give the observatory at least another five years of life and its most powerful science instruments yet.

"Being part of the Hubble repair was just awesome," Brewer said.

The shuttle left Edwards on Monday morning and spent the night at Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso, Texas.

From there, it made stops at military bases in San Antonio, Texas, and Columbus, Miss., on Tuesday before starting the final leg to KSC about 4:45 p.m.

Shuttles now have returned from Edwards 53 times.

Atlantis was "particularly heavy," said Don McCormack, the ferry flight's manager.

The orbiter weighed a quarter-million pounds, still carrying some of the hardware removed from Hubble about 350 miles above Earth.

Before landing, the two vehicles -- weighing about 600,000 pounds combined -- roared past KSC's three-mile runway about 500 feet off the ground, then made a tear-drop turn over the Atlantic Ocean and eased to a touchdown marked by streams of smoke from the 747's wheels.

McCormack said requests for flybys from NASA centers -- they also were made at White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico and Johnson Space Center in Houston -- have been on the rise.

"I'm sure it has something to do with the end of the program approaching," he said.

Eight more shuttle flights are scheduled before the fleet is retired, including two by Atlantis.

After 8 p.m., the combined shuttle and 747 rolled into a gantry device to be separated.

Atlantis was expected to be towed back to its KSC processing hangar by this afternoon to start getting ready for its next flight, a planned November trip to the International Space Station.

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