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
He may be a bit wobbly for a bit, but Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata is feeling fine after returning to Earth for the first time in more than four months to complete his country?s first long-duration spaceflight. ?
?I feel great,? Wakata told reporters after landing in Florida aboard NASA?s space shuttle Endeavour. ?When the hatch opened, I could smell the grass and the ground and I?m glad to be back home.?
Wakata and six other astronauts landed at 10:48 a.m. EDT (1448 GMT) Friday when Endeavour touched down at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle astronauts wrapped up a long, 16-day mission to the International Space Station, but Wakata returned home after living in weightlessness for 138 days.
?Still feeling a little bit shaky when I walk, but feeling very good,? said Wakata, looking very stable in a post-landing conference.
Sushi must wait
A host of medical checks prevented Wakata from grabbing a bite of sushi, which he has been craving since leaving Earth and was waiting for him a-plenty. He planned to chow down later Friday after speaking with reporters.
He also returned one day before his 46th birthday, which is tomorrow. He expects to celebrate with his wife and young son, possibly over more sushi and a birthday cake.
?You?re inviting your whole crew, right?? asked Endeavour commander Mark Polansky with a smile.
?Yes, can you handle raw fish?? Wakata replied. The astronauts laughed.
Wakata launched to the space station back in March and served as a flight engineer on three different crews including the first full six-person crew, which he left when his replacement - NASA astronaut Tim Kopra - arrived earlier this month aboard Endeavour. He is Japan?s first long-term resident of the space station, was among the first station astronauts to drink water recycled from urine and wore high-tech clothing developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
?He really completed his duty and his mission,? said JAXA President Keiji Tachikawa, who met with Wakata just after he landed.
A successful flight
During Endeavour?s marathon mission, Wakata and his crewmates installed the final piece of Japan?s giant Kibo laboratory, a $1 billion facility made up of a module the size of a tour bus, a small storage room and an external porch to hold experiments. It was the new porch that Endeavour astronauts installed during their mission, which included five spacewalks to add the piece, deliver spare parts and replace vital solar array batteries.
?We are thrilled to be here capping off a really successful mission,? Polansky said.
Endeavour?s six-man, one-woman crew boosted the space station?s population to 13 - its largest crowd ever - when the shuttle arrived. They were also in space during NASA?s 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing.
The extra people meant that some things that would be mundane on Earth, like a flooded toilet, became urgent problems.
?Seemingly innocuous things become huge things,? Polansky said. ?You?ve got to take care of it or it?s a major thing.?
The additional people also helped the space station live up to its international namesake.
Endeavour?s crew included Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, with another Canadian living aboard the station alongside two Americans, two Russians and a Belgian astronaut. The United States, Russian, Canada, Japan and Europe - all five of the major space agencies building the $100 billion station - were represented while Wakata was aboard.
?Every mission has its own character and they?re all amazing,? said astronaut Dave Wolf, who has flown on shuttle missions to the International Space Station and served a months-long stint on Russia?s space station Mir.
?Seeing the space station come together, an international orbiting laboratory conducting research that can?t be done on Earth, this really, essentially topped them all,? Wolf said.
With Endeavour back on Earth, NASA is now turning its attention toward the next shuttle mission aboard Discovery, which is slated to launch Aug. 25 to deliver spare parts and supplies to the space station.
Japan, meanwhile, is gearing up for the maiden flight of its H-2 Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned cargo ship slated to make its debut supply run to the space station in September. NASA plans to launch seven more shuttle missions to complete the space station's contruction.
- Video - The Kibo Lab: Japan's Hope in Space - Part 1, Part 2
- Video - Space Station's Population Boom
- SPACE.com Video Show - The ISS: Foothold on Forever