Shuttle Endeavour Lands Safely in Florida
Space shuttle Endeavour kicks up dust as it touches down on Runway 15 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 31, 2009 to complete the 16-day, 6.5-million mile journey on the STS-127 mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

This story was updated at 2:00 p.m. EDT.

HOUSTON - Space shuttle Endeavour touched down in Florida on Friday morning, bringing to an end a successful 16-day mission to complete Japan's Kibo science laboratory at the International Space Station (ISS).

Shuttle commander Mark Polansky piloted Endeavour to a 10:48 a.m. EDT (1448 GMT) landing at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center, beating the weather -  which called for a chance of rain - for a smooth landing at its home port in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The astronauts landed after delivering a brand new experiment porch to the space station along with vital spare parts and a new crewmember for the outpost?s six-man crew.

"Welcome home!" NASA astronaut Alan Poindexter radioed Endeavour?s crew from Mission Control in Houston. "Congratulations on a superb mission from beginning to end. Very well done."

"That's what it is all about," Polansky replied after thanking the whole flight team. "We're happy to be home."

Returning home with Polansky and Hurley were STS-127 mission specialists Dave Wolf, Tom Marshburn, Chris Cassidy and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette. Cassidy became the 500th person in space during the 6.5 million-mile (10.4 million-km) mission.

Their seventh crewmate for the trip home was Japan?s first long-duration space station resident, Koichi Wakata. A flight engineer for three successful station crews since March, Wakata spent 138 days in space before being replaced by NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who launched on Endeavour and will return to Earth with the next shuttle mission targeted for launch in late August.

?I long for sushi, so that?s the first thing I would like to have,? said Wakata, who returned to Earth just one day before his 46th birthday. He added that a dip in one of Japan?s hot springs is also high on his list.

A NASA spokesperson confirmed that Wakata did indeed have sushi waiting for him after disembarking the shuttle Endeavour. He also brought home some high-tech underwear and other clothing designed to be stink-free and antistatic, which wore for a month at a time to test the Japanese-made space garb. Wakata said he received no complaints from his crewmates.

Front porch installed, batteries replaced

Endeavour rocketed to orbit July 15 and reached the space station two days later to begin its ambitious construction flight. The combined seven-member shuttle crew and six-man station staff formed the largest crowd aboard any one spacecraft in history - 13 people.

?We certainly miss being there, but there?s no place like home,? Polansky said.

One of the station?s two space toilets and a carbon dioxide removal device broke down during the mission. Both were swiftly repaired, but the carbon dioxide scrubber shut down again Wednesday. Station astronauts hoped to repair it soon.

Pilot Hurley said the best moments of the flight came during those rare moments of downtime, when all 13 astronauts could gather together, swap stories and tell jokes.

?It just seemed a little funnier up here,? Hurley said before landing.

Endeavour?s primary mission was to deliver the final component of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency?s $1 billion Kibo (?Hope?) laboratory, an exterior platform designed to support experiments. Its installation, including the addition of three initial payloads, required a combination of five spacewalks and the use of three robotic arms, including the Japanese arm on Kibo.

Wolf led Endeavour?s spacewalking team to install the Kibo porch, deliver vital spare parts and replace aging solar array batteries during the shuttle flight. They also added vital cameras to Kibo in preparation for the arrival of Japan's first unmanned cargo ship in September.

The space station is now 83 percent complete and weighs 685,000 pounds, with seven more shuttle flights ahead to finish construction by 2010, when NASA plans to retire its three-shuttle fleet. It has a wingspan as long as an American football field and can be easily seen at night by the unaided eye.

?I can?t say enough how great this mission was,? NASA?s space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier said after Endeavour landed. ?The crew and the ground teams pulled it all together."

One of the best

Despite an early concern for tile damage as a result of foam debris falling off of Endeavour?s external fuel tank during launch, mission managers praised STS-127 for its relative clean performance over the course of its 248 orbits.

?It?s been as good as some of the best ones we?ve flown in the last year or two,? said mission management team chair Leroy Cain. ?Certainly one of the best.?

In addition to the foam strikes, which were cleared for re-entry after a series of routine heat shield inspections, Endeavour experienced an issue with one of its three power-providing fuel cells and lost use of one of its forward thrusters. Both problems however, posed no impact to the STS-127 mission.

Now back on Earth, Endeavour will be serviced and prepared for its next flight, STS-130, scheduled for a return trip to the International Space Station early next year. NASA?s next shuttle mission, STS-128, is targeted for launch on Aug. 25 aboard orbiter Discovery pending a check of its fuel tank foam insulation.

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