HOUSTON -- Thespace shuttle Endeavour and its seven-astronaut crew undocked from theInternational Space Station (ISS) early Sunday as NASA kept a close watch onHurricane Dean.
NASAshuttle managers ordered Endeavour's STS-118 astronauts to cast off from the spacestation oneday early due to concerns that the hurricane could prompt an evacuation ofMission Control here at the Johnson Space Center.
Endeavourleft its space station berth at 7:56 a.m. EDT (1156 GMT) and is en route for aTuesday landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
"Itwas really a pleasure working with you guys," shuttle commander ScottKelly told the station's Expedition 15 crew as Endeavour pulled away. "We'llsee you again on the ground."
"Havea good trip to Earth," Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin told theshuttle astronauts. "Say hello at home to everyone for us."
Kelly andhis STS-118 crewmates launchedtowards the ISS on Aug. 8 and spent about nine days at the orbital laboratorydelivering cargo, spare parts and a new starboard-side piece of the station's backbone-likemain truss.
The shuttlecrew includes teacher-turned-astronautBarbara Morgan, who first joined NASA as its backup to Teacher in SpaceChrista McAuliffe before the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission. She became acareer NASA spaceflyer and educator astronaut in 1998.
"Whatwe have up here is a fabulous vehicle," Morgan told reporters of the ISSduring her flight. A planned video link between Morgan and schoolchildren inMassachusetts was canceled Sunday due to Endeavour's early undocking, NASA said.
As of earlySunday, HurricaneDean was moving across the Caribbean Sea near Jamaica as it made its way towardsthe Gulf of Mexico. The category four storm had maximum winds speeds of 145 milesper hour (230 kph) and was trending towards the southern Gulf Coast.
Mission managersare now discussing whether to evacuate Mission Control here at JSC and set up abackup operations center at KSC for Endeavour's landing, though it appearedunlikely the measure would be required, NASA said.
"Itwould have been irresponsible for us not to pay attention to this storm,"LeRoy Cain, NASA's mission management chair, told reporters Saturday."It's a big storm, and it's a serious storm."
Inspections,time off ahead
With theirconstruction mission complete, Endeavour's STS-118 astronauts are now turningtheir attention towards their planned Tuesday landing. Touchdown is slated for12:32 p.m. EDT (1632 GMT) at KSC, with a second opportunity about 30 minuteslater.
But firstthe astronauts will conduct one final scan of their orbiter's heat shield in anow-standard late inspection. The survey is expected to begin at about 10:16a.m. EDT (1416 GMT) and run more than five hours to inspect Endeavour's wingedges and nose cap for any damage from micrometeorites or orbital debris.
A similar scanwith Endeavour's sensor-laden inspection boom just after launch cleared theorbiter of any major concerns from fuel tank debris at launch. Late last week,NASA also cleared a tiny micrometeorite scuff on one of Endeavour's windows and a small,3 1/2-inch by 2-inch (9-centimeter by 5-centimeter) gouge in the orbiter'sbelly-mounted tiles of any concern.
Endeavour'sSTS-118 mission is NASA's second of up to four planned shuttle flights thisyear dedicated to ISS assembly.
"Timehas really flown by, we've accomplished a lot," Kelly said Saturday duringa brief farewell ceremony, adding that the team work between crews led to themission's success. "It's great being part of one big team between shuttlecrew and this station crew."
NASA isbroadcasting Endeavour's STS-118 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for mission updates andSPACE.com's NASA TV feed.
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