HOUSTON -- NASA'sspace shuttle Endeavour will land one day early to avoid the possible impactsof Hurricane Dean, mission managers said Saturday.
Endeavouris now set to land on Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida due to thelooming threat of HurricaneDean to NASA's shuttle and space station Mission Control centers here atthe Johnson Space Center (JSC).
"Endof mission day is now Tuesday," Cain told reporters here at JSC. "That'sour first landing day."
Endeavour'sseven STS-118 astronauts are now set to undock from the International SpaceStation (ISS) at 7:57 a.m. EDT (1157 GMT) Sunday and land at 12:30 p.m. EDT(1630 GMT) Tuesday in Florida.
SpacewalkersDave Williams and Clayton Anderson cut short a planned6.5-hour spacewalk earlier Saturday to prepare for the earlier undockingand landing, but not before the spaceflyers caughtsight of Hurricane Dean while working outside the ISS.
"Holysmokes," Anderson told Williams. "Did you see the eye?"
As of lateSaturday, Hurricane Dean remained a strong category four storm with winds blowingup to 150 miles per hour (240 kph) as it made its way west-northwest across theCaribbean Sea, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm iscurrently headed towards the Gulf Coast, with some forecasts predictinglandfall in southern Texas at its northernmost point.
Cain saidNASA's greatest concern is that Dean could force an evacuation of its MissionControl centers just in time for Endeavour's previously planned Wednesdaylanding.
"Iwould defy just about anybody to tell me at this point that there is zero, oreven extremely low probability or possibility, that this storm is going to comehere," Cain said, adding that it's still too early to predict what Deanwill do. "We've all watched these storms before, we're all aware of whatthey can and have done."
If Deanthreatens mission operations in Houston by about Monday, NASA will call upbackup landing sites at California's Edwards Air Force Base and New Mexico'sWhite Sands Space Harbor for a definite return to Earth Tuesday, Cain said.
But if thestorm does not force critical flight controllers to evacuate Mission Control,and bad weather prevents a Florida landing on Tuesday, Endeavour could circleEarth an extra day, he added.
NASA'sInternational Space Station (ISS) mission operations can shift to Russia'sMission Control near Moscow during hurricanes, with a backup U.S. team set upoutside of Houston. The scenario was successfully implemented in September 2005during Hurricane Rita.
For shuttleflights, the agency can set up a backup Mission Control in a launch firing roomat the Kennedy Space Center, but the facilities are not as robust for landingsupport as those in Houston.
Endeavour'searlier landing day comes after NASAcleared concerns over a small, but deep, gouge in the orbiter'sbelly-mounted heat shield.
Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Scott Kelly, Endeavour's STS-118 crew delivered about5,000 pounds (2,267 kilograms) of cargo, a new spare parts platform and a newstarboard side girder to the ISS. The crew also includes teacher-turned-astronautBarbara Morgan, who served as NASA's backup to Teacher in Space ChristaMcAuliffe before the 1986 Challenger accident.
Hatchesbetween the two spacecraft were shut earlier today after a brief farewellceremony between the Endeavour astronauts and the station's Expedition 15 crew.
"We'regoing to be here for about another two months," Expedition 15 commanderFyodor Yurchikhin told the departing shuttle astronauts. "Come backagain!"
NASA isbroadcasting Endeavour's STS-118 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for mission updates andSPACE.com's NASA TV feed.
- VIDEO: STS-116 Mission Profile: Fourth Spacewalk
- VIDEO: Endeavour Shuttle Tile Damage
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage