24 Extra Hours in Space: What's an Astronaut to Do?

An astronaut’s work is never finished.

Thunderstorms and a low-lying clouds in Florida forced the space shuttle Atlantis to stay aloft for another day, but the seven astronauts on board aren’t spending their time idly gazing out the windows at Earth.

So what are they doing? They’ve “spent the whole morning getting ready to land, so there’s a whole bunch of checklist things they had to do—close the cargo bay doors, put the computers in a configuration for landing,” said Allard Beutel, a spokesperson at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “[Now] basically they have to undo all the things they did this morning.”

“We’re also adding a course adjustment to allow us to get another chance to land at Edwards Air Force base out in California,” Beutel added.

Today, as with every day during a shuttle mission, the astronauts’ schedules are carefully managed. “Basically they take their time and reset themselves to be able to then go to bed and start this whole thing over tomorrow,” Beutel told SPACE.com.

However, mission ground controllers do try to cut the astronauts a break occasionally. “When they’re not doing their official assignments, yes, they can take in the views of Earth,” Beutel said. “It’s a 14-day mission. It’s been two weeks of solid work. We try not to tax them too hard before they land.”

Following today’s engine burn, Atlantis will have five landing opportunities tomorrow. The first will be at KSC at 2:18 p.m. EDT (1818 GMT). At around 3:50 p.m. EDT (1950 GMT) tomorrow, the shuttle could try again at KSC or try to land at Edwards.

If all these attempts fail, then the shuttle has two more chances at Edwards tomorrow: one at 5:24 p.m. (2124 GMT) and 6:59 p.m. EDT (2259 GMT).

Including today’s shuttle landing delay, there have been 23 weather-related shuttle mission extensions out of the 35 shuttle missions extended to date, according to NASA records.

Led by Commander Rick Sturckow, the seven-member STS-117 crew delivered and installed new solar arrays and massive $367.3 million trusses to the International Space Station (ISS). They also helped the ISS astronauts recover vital Russian computer systems that crashed last week and repaired a torn bit of thermal blanket on the shuttle's left aft engine pod.

Returning to Earth with Sturckow are Atlantis pilot Lee Archambault and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, Steven Swanson, James Reilly II, Danny Olivas and Sunita Williams, who is setting a world record for the longest duration spaceflight by a female astronaut.

  • SPACE.com Video Interplayer: Space Station Power Up with STS-117
  • IMAGES: Atlantis Shuttle's STS-117 Launch Day
  • Complete Shuttle Mission Coverage

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Staff Writer

Ker Than is a science writer and children's book author who joined Space.com as a Staff Writer from 2005 to 2007. Ker covered astronomy and human spaceflight while at Space.com, including space shuttle launches, and has authored three science books for kids about earthquakes, stars and black holes. Ker's work has also appeared in National Geographic, Nature News, New Scientist and Sky & Telescope, among others. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from UC Irvine and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University. Ker is currently the Director of Science Communications at Stanford University.