CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. -- Seven astronauts and NASA's space shuttle Endeavour are dueto return to Earth today after a successful construction flight cut short a dayby earlier concerns over Hurricane Dean.
Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Scott Kelly, Endeavour's STS-118 astronaut crew is setto land here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 12:32 p.m. EDT (1632 GMT) toconclude a 13-dayassembly mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
"Hopefully,we'll have acceptable weather and a really good day," Kelly told MissionControl Monday.
Strongcrosswinds and a slight chance of rain within about 34 miles (54 kilometers) ofNASA's Shuttle Landing Facility are the only threats to Endeavour's plannedlanding. NASA has two opportunities to return the shuttle and its crew today,with the second occurring at 2:06 p.m. EDT (1806 GMT).
"Ithink we have a pretty good chance for this time of year," said SteveStich, NASA's launch and entry flight director for Endeavour's flight, in aMonday briefing. "I'm pretty optimistic."
Stich saidEndeavour and its crew are primed for today's landing, and reiterated that a small,deep gouge in the orbiter's underbelly will pose no risk to the spacecraftduring reentry. The ding, he added, will likely have little impact inEndeavour's refurbishment for a planned February 2008 mission.
NASA islooking into possible fixes for the fuel tank foam that caused the damage,shuttle officials said Monday.
Returningto Earth with Kelly are Endeavour pilot Charlie Hobaugh, teacher-turned-spaceflyerBarbara Morgan and her fellow mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, RickMastracchio, Alvin Drew, Jr. and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams.
The sevenastronauts successfully repaired a broken ISS gyroscope, delivered more thantwo tons of cargo and installed a new spare parts platform along with an $11 millionstarboard-side girder at the orbital laboratory during their mission.
Morgan,NASA's backup for Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe before the 1986 Challengertragedy, left pair of expandable plant growth chambers and basil seeds aboardthe ISS for station astronauts to cultivate as part an educational program.
Endeavouris landing one dayearlier than planned due to measures taken late last week to ensure thatNASA's Mission Control operations in Houston, Texas were not interrupted by HurricaneDean. At the time, it appeared the massive storm could swing north to hitcoastal Texas and prompt an evacuation of Mission Control.
As of lateMonday, however, the storm was continuing on a course towards central Mexico,according to the National Hurricane Center.
"HurricaneDean is kind of trending away, so we don?t think that?s going to be afactor," NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson told Endeavour's crew from MissionControl Monday.
Bycoincidence, should Endeavour wave off its first landing attempt today, the100-ton spacecraft would pass over Hurricane Dean at an altitude of about180,000 feet (54,864 meters) for the 2:06 p.m. EDT (1806 GMT) touchdown, NASAsaid. But its astronaut crew would not be able to see the storm throughEndeavour's windows due to the shuttle's flight path, the space agency added.
NASA hasthe capability of landing Endeavour at a backup runway at California's EdwardsAir Force Base in the Mojave Desert today, but will likely forgo that optionand wait for Wednesday should a Florida touchdown prove untenable thisafternoon, Stich said.
By landingin Florida, NASA can cut down the amount of time required to prepare an orbiterfor its next flight, as well as save about $1.7 million in extra costsassociated with hauling a shuttle across the U.S. to its Florida launch site.
Stich saidpreparing for today's landing has been considerably more palatable than ponderingthe earlier implications of Hurricane Dean.
"It'smuch more like a normal landing day," he said.
NASA isbroadcasting Endeavour's STS-118 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for mission updates andSPACE.com's NASA TV feed.
- NEW VIDEO: STS-118: Coming Home
- VIDEO: Teaching the Future: Teacher-Astronaut Barbara Morgan
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage