CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. - Astronauts aboard NASA?s shuttle Atlantis are hoping forclear skies over Florida tomorrow as they near the end of a successful constructionflight to the International Space Station (ISS).
Shuttlecommander Stephen Frick and his six crewmates are scheduled to land Wednesday at9:07 a.m. EST (1407 GMT) here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), though thespace agency has also called up a backup runway at California?s Edwards AirForce Base.
?We?recertainly very hopeful that we?ll be getting home tomorrow at the Kennedy SpaceCenter,? Frick told ABC News today. ?It sounds like we?ll be very likely toland at Kennedy or Edwards.?
Frick andhis crew are wrapping up a 13-day spaceflightthat delivered the European Space Agency?s (ESA) Columbuslaboratory and a new crewmember to the space station. Atlantis undockedfrom the ISS early Monday after nine days working alongside the station?sthree-person crew to install and outfit the 10-ton Columbus during threespacewalks.
Currentforecasts from the Spaceflight Meteorology Group at NASA?s Johnson Space Centerin Houston predict fair weather over the shuttle runway at KSC on Wednesdaymorning, with a slight chance of rain possible at Edwards later in the day.
?Atlantisand her crew are ready for reentry tomorrow,? NASA flight director Bryan Lunneysaid in an afternoon briefing.
Lunney saidAtlantis? heat shield has been given a clean bill of health based on the crew?sMonday inspection of its wing edges and nose cap. The loss of four aft-mountedthrusters due to a heater glitch late yesterday will not affect Wednesday?slanding, as they are not required for reentry, he added.
NASA traditionallytargets its KSC runway for a returning shuttle?s first day of landingopportunities to cut down on the extra time and costs involved in hauling anorbiter back to its Florida hangar . A California landing typically adds aweek and $1.7 million to an orbiter?s turnaround for its next flight, NASAofficials have said.
But space agency officialsdecidedlast week to activate the Edwards landing strip in California?s MojaveDesert to give Atlantis more chances to land and clear the way for the U.S. militaryto shootdown a defunct spy satellite. The U.S. Navy plans to launch a missile froman Aegis cruiser in the northern Pacific to destroy the failing reconnaissancesatellite and prevent its half-ton load of toxic rocket fuel from endangeringpeople on the ground.
Atlantishas two chances to land at KSC and two more to set down at Edwards, thoughLunney said he plans to use only three of the available opportunities due tothe shuttle?s available water supply for cooling. But, he added, the spaceagency is under no pressure from the military to land Atlantis, even if weatherdoes not cooperate.
?We?re notgoing to land the vehicle until it is safe for our crew,? he said.
Frick andshuttle pilot Alan Poindexter, both active U.S. Navy officers, had words of encouragementfor their seafaring comrades hoping to smashthe falling satellite after Atlantis lands.
?My firstthought when we talk about that is ?Go Navy!?? said Frick, adding that debrisfrom the satellite?s destruction will be too low to pose a threat to the ISS. ?We?llbe interested to watch and see what happens.?
Riding homeaboard Atlantis is U.S. astronaut Dan Tani, who is returning to Earth afterfour months in orbit aboard the ISS. Tani?s mother died in December after hismission was extended due to launch delays for Atlantis? current spaceflight. Hesaid Wednesday that he believed he had worked through his grief and thanked familyand flight controllers for their support.
?Like a lotof things, you just deal with what you?re given,? he told CNN. ?My job had meon the space station and life happens. Great things and terrible things happen.?
Atlantis?STS-122 mission is the first of up to six planned shuttle flights for NASA thisyear. In addition to delivering Europe?s 1.4 billion euro ($2 billion) Columbuslab, shuttle astronauts also replaced an empty nitrogen tank and retrieved abroken gyroscope during their mission?s spacewalks.
The shuttleastronauts have aimed video cameras at several radiator hoses to record howthey retract tomorrow as Atlantis? cargo bay doors are closed, Lunney said,adding that the imagery will help engineers on Earth. One of the hoses had to berepositioned before the shuttle?s Feb. 7 launch after it bent the wrong way.
Atlantishas enough supplies to stay aloft until Friday, but flight controllerstypically keep one day in reserve for unexpected technical glitches. The STS-122astronauts spent today converting their spacecraft for flight through Earth?satmosphere today, and are gearing up for their landing tomorrow, Lunney said.
?I thinkthey?re in great shape,? he added. ?They?re well rested and ready to go landtomorrow.?
NASA isbroadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com'sshuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.
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