CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? The six astronauts who flew back to Earth aboard shuttle Atlantis Wednesday said their trip was a blast, and they wish they could ride a space shuttle again.
But the spaceflyers admitted there was very little chance of this, since there are only two more shuttle missions planned before NASA's three-orbiter fleet is retired at the end of this year. Nonetheless, the experience on Atlantis was one the crew of STS-132 will remember forever, the astronauts said.
"It certainly did strike me walking around the orbiter today, that I probably just did the coolest thing I'll ever do in my life," Atlantis' STS-132 commander Kenneth Ham said after the landing. "And it's over, it's behind me, it's great, it's a great memory."
The flight was the final planned voyage for Atlantis, though NASA and lawmakers are considering whether to add just one more mission next year to install extra spare supplies on the station.
"From the condition we brought her back in, she is so ready to get stacked and back on the launch pad," STS-132 pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli said. "You can tell that?s where she wants to be."
Ham and company plan to leave Kennedy Space Center here and fly home to Houston today.
The astronauts spent 12 days orbiting Earth on Atlantis, which linked up with the International Space Station to deliver spare supplies and a new Russian research module. Their work included three spacewalks, which marked a high point for the three astronauts who conducted them.
At one point, spacewalker Stephen Bowen was left with some spare time to wait for further instructions while his teammate wrapped up a task.
"I had about 20 to 30 minutes, sitting there basically laying on my back, watching the world go by past the Russian segment, and I was just thinking, 'How in the world did I end up here? This is just unbelievable, just seems totally surreal and a lot of fun at the same time,'" Bowen recalled.
The astronauts ? all veteran space travelers ? said they appreciated seeing the space station in its now almost-completely built state.
Mission specialist Garrett Reisman served as a long-duration crewmember on the station's Expedition 16 and 17 in 2008.
"It felt like home when I got back there," Reisman said. "But there were some definite changes. This crew has got the station really shipshape."
He particularly appreciated a recent addition to the orbiting laboratory called the Cupola, a giant dome window that offers sweeping views of the Earth below.
"It's fantastic to look out at the Earth from the Cupola," Reisman said. "You can see from horizon to horizon."
Ultimately, an essential part of the reason the STS-132 mission went so well was the crew's bond, the astronauts said.
"The fun is really these five guys next to me, and we're going to be around together for quite a while longer and we're going to continue to have fun," Ham said.
NASA's next shuttle mission, the STS-133 flight of Discovery, is slated to lift off Sept. 16. Endeavour is planned to launch in late November on what could be the last-ever shuttle mission.
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