CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – With the space shuttle Endeavour safely on the ground, the orbiter's crew can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
The six astronauts who flew Endeavour on its final flight successfully completed a jam-packed mission that included installing a $2 billion astrophysics experiment, called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, on the truss of the International Space Station, and four lengthy spacewalks that were the last ones performed by members of a shuttle crew.
"We got everything done that we planned to do," shuttle commander Mark Kelly said in a post-landing news briefing today (June 1). "We installed the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on flight day 4 of the mission, which was a pretty exciting milestone for us. It'll be a new day for astrophysics in space to have a very high-tech cosmic particle detector outside the Earth's atmosphere."
Endeavour landed Wednesday (June 1) at 2:35 a.m. EDT (0635 GMT) to end its 25th and final mission, a voyage to the International Space Station. The 16-day STS-134 flight, which launched May 16, was NASA's second-to-last shuttle mission before the program is brought to an end later this year. [Video: Space Shuttle Endeavour's Final Touchdown]
Happy to be home
For Kelly, his return to Earth means a much anticipated reunion with his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who has been recovering from a gunshot wound to the head that she received in a failed assassination attempt in January.
Giffords had recovered enough to travel to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see her husband launch on Endeavour's last mission.
While Kelly was in space, Giffords underwent cranioplasty surgery to install a plastic implant to a section of her skull. According to Kelly, the surgery went well, and he's looking forward to seeing her in person soon.
"I haven't spoken to her yet because she's probably still sleeping," Kelly said. "She's in the hospital, and I don't want to wake her up. I actually sent her mother an email and said, the first thing I do when I leave this press conference, let me know if she's awake and I'm going to call her."
Kelly said that the shuttle's night landing and the challenging nature of her recovery were the main reasons why Giffords did not travel to Florida for her husband's homecoming.
"What am I going to say to her? I really miss her and can't wait to get back there tomorrow to see her," Kelly said. "We're all looking forward to spending time with our families."
Dream come true
As for the completed mission, Kelly said his fondest memories will be of his five crewmates: pilot Greg H. Johnson and mission specialists Mike Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and Roberto Vittori.
"With a 16-day flight, we've got a lot of great stories that we'll be telling for a long time," Kelly said. "This was an incredible group. This stuff is really difficult, and to do it with a group of people that are just so accomplished and so experienced makes it very easy for me. It makes my job a lot easier to have guys like this on this crew. So, I'll remember them more than anything."
Fincke, a veteran spaceflyer, set a new record for the number of days spent in space by a U.S. astronaut during Endeavour's STS-134 mission. Endeavour's final flight was his first aboard one of NASA's space shuttles. Previously, Fincke served two long duration stints onboard the International Space Station, both times launching to the station on a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft.
Having the opportunity to fly a shuttle mission, particularly one of the last missions of the program, was a dream come true, he said.
"Getting a chance to fly on the space shuttle was a dream of mine, and I couldn't have asked to do it with a better group of guys here on our crew, and couldn't have asked for a better ground support team," Fincke said. "It was everything I dreamed of when I was that 8- or 9-year-old that wanted to fly on this new space shuttle thing. It wasn't even built yet – it was still in planning."
"That's all I wanted to do," he said. "I made a t-shirt with the space shuttle on it with markers because they weren't out in stores yet. I still have that t-shirt, and you know, childhood dreams don't always come true, and sometimes your life comes in, but man, this dream – the reality was better than the dream. I mean, can you believe that? It was so incredible. We just landed a few hours ago and I'm still just basking in it. I can't believe, that was so surreal how wonderful that was."
NASA has one more shuttle mission planned – the STS-135 flight of Atlantis in July – before the program is officially retired. The three working orbiters, plus the test vehicle Enterprise, will then begin the next phase of their lives on display at museums around the country.