Space Shuttle Atlantis Lands Safely in Florida
Space shuttle Atlantis and 7 astronauts land on Runway 33 at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility on Nov. 27, 2009 - a day after Thanksgiving - concluding the STS-129 mission.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 8:22 p.m. EST.

Space shuttle Atlantis landed safely in Florida early Friday, gliding in under sunny skies to wrap up a successful 11-day delivery mission to the International Space Station.

Commander Charlie ?Scorch? Hobaugh brought Atlantis and his six crewmates to a touchdown at 9:44 a.m. EST (1444 GMT) on NASA?s Shuttle Landing Facility runaway at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"Couldn't have picked a clearer day," Hobaugh radioed Mission Control as he saw the runway below.

"That was a picture-perfect end," Mission Control replied just after landing. "Everybody welcome back to Earth."

Their arrival concluded Atlantis? STS-129 mission, which delivered about 27,250 pounds (12,360 kg) of vital spare parts to the station in order to extend its lifespan. The 4.5 million-mile spaceflight included three spacewalks, the birth of a crew member?s daughter back on Earth, a Thanksgiving celebration in space, and also returned the last station resident to arrive and depart the station by a U.S. space shuttle.

NASA treated the returning astronauts with a turkey dinner with all the fixings to make up for keeping the crew in space over Thanksgiving. But first, they had to go through medical checks, though it was worth it, Hobaugh said.

"You go see the doc, you get a turkey dinner,? he joked. ?It's a pain.?

The new father - astronaut Randy Bresnik - rushed home to Houston after finishing his own medical checks to be with his wife Rebecca, son Wyatt and new baby daughter Abigail Mae. She was born last week in between two of the mission?s spacewalks while Bresnik was stuck in space.

?We were fortunate enough to get [a spacewalk] out, find out that my baby was delivered safely and she's healthy... and then we got to go out the door for another [spacewalk]. It was the most amazing three days of my life so far,? Bresnik said before landing. Abigail is Bresnik?s second child. He and his wife also have a 3-year-old son.

Home again

Returning to Florida with Hobaugh were shuttle pilot Barry ?Butch? Wilmore and mission specialists Michael Foreman, Leland Melvin. Randy Bresnik and Robert Satcher, Jr. The shuttle also returned NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, who spent 91 days in space during her own mission to the station.

?I was really sad to leave the station and my crewmates there, but I have a new bunch here who are really, really great and I am getting to go home and see my family,? Stott said before landing. Stott?s crewmates said she was in good health after her three months in space. She was looking forward to some pizza and a cold Coca-Cola once after landing.

In addition to being the first mother to serve on a long duration station flight, Stott is also the last station astronaut expected to be switched out using a NASA shuttle. She launched in August on the shuttle Discovery and returned on Atlantis. All upcoming station crews will launch and land on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for at least the near future.

Stott?s departure left five crew members staffing the station, but that compliment will drop to just two on Monday evening. Frank De Winne, the station?s first European Space Agency (ESA) commander, as well as Canadian Robert Thirsk and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko will depart on Soyuz TMA-15 for their own return to Earth, leaving only U.S. commander Jeffrey Williams and Russian flight engineer Maxim Suraev as the Expedition 22 crew.

Three more crew members are scheduled to join Williams and Suraev aboard the station on Dec. 22. NASA is also monitoring a piece of space junk - the remains of a Delta 2 rocket - that is expected to fly within 6 miles of the station late Saturday. Mission Control is expected to decide late Friday whether the station will have to maneuver to dodge the space junk.

Spares and spacewalks

The STS-129 mission was the 31st space shuttle to visit the orbiting outpost and coincidentally, the 31st flight for Atlantis as well. It launched Nov. 16 on a mission to delivering two large pallets of spare components to stock the station before the shuttle?s planned retirement in 2010.

Among the spare parts hauled to the station were huge gyroscopes, tanks and pumps, an ammonia tank assembly, as well as extra components for the station?s robotic arm and other systems. The astronauts installed the spare parts during their three spacewalks among other maintenance chores.  

The Atlantis astronauts were the eighth space shuttle crew in history to mark the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday in space. Foreman said he had saved some of his turkey meals from earlier in the spaceflight to cobble together a makeshift dinner.

The fifth shuttle flight this year, the STS-129 mission marked the penultimate flight for Atlantis, which is scheduled to launch on its final mission, STS-132, in May 2010.

It also marked the most shuttle flights for NASA in a single year since 2002, when the agency also launched five missions. NASA's record for most shuttle launches in a year is nine.

?This is an amazing year for us,? said NASA?s space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier. The goal for 2010, he said, is to keep vigilant to ensure that each of the remaining shuttle missions is safe to fly.

NASA currently plans to fly five more shuttle missions to complete the assembly of the station and stock the orbiting laboratory with more supplies. The shuttle fleet is slated to retire in the next year or so to make way for new spacecraft capable of leaving low Earth orbit.

?It?s like going into that championship game,? Gerstenmaier said. ?You can be your own worst enemy?We?ve just got to stay at our top-level performance.?

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