Shuttle Flight's Success a Global Effort, NASA Says

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The successful return of the shuttle Endeavour late Wednesday capped a global effort by NASA and its partners to push the International Space Station (ISS) another step towards completion, the U.S. agency said.

With shuttle commander Dominic Gorie at the helm, Endeavour and its seven-astronaut crew touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 8:39 p.m. EDT (0039 March 27 GMT) Wednesday after delivering a new Japanese room and two-armed Canadian robot to the $100-billion orbiting laboratory.

A French astronaut, veteran European Space Agency (ESA) spaceflyer Leopold Eyharts, also returned to Earth aboard the U.S. shuttle after a long-duration stay aboard the ISS to commission Europe’s Columbus laboratory. But it was the mission’s Japanese payload, a storage compartment for Japan’s school bus-sized Kibo laboratory, which rounded out the multinational ISS partnership in space.

“It took years to make it happen,” NASA chief Michael Griffin said after Endeavour’s return, adding that the 16-nation partnership has been in the making for decades. “If you look around, there really isn’t, any more, a U.S. human spaceflight program or a Russian human spaceflight program.

“There is a world human spaceflight program centered around the building, and then later the utilization of, the International Space Station,” Griffin said. “We hope once we get that under our belt, that we’ll go on to the moon and then to Mars.”

Just before Endeavour landed, the ISS and Europe’s first unmanned cargo ship Jules Verne passed over the shuttle’s runway. The cargo tug, the first of up to seven ESA Automated Transfer Vehicles, is on a shakedown cruise and is set to make a pair of test approaches at the station over the next week for a planned April 3rd docking.

“I can’t think of a better day, or ending of a day, than to see those three wonderful pieces of hardware,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations.

NASA plans to launch 10 more shuttle flights between now and 2010 to complete space station construction before the agency retires its aging, three-orbiter fleet. One side trip, a planned August flight to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope, is also on the books.

Gerstenmaier said that the process of incorporating safety modifications developed after the 2003 Columbia tragedy into brand new shuttle fuel tanks could prompt some schedule slips for upcoming flights. But any changes should not impact the overall station assembly plan by 2010, he added.

“It looks fairly decent on paper even if we do have some delays on the way,” Gerstenmaier said.

In late May, NASA’s shuttle Discovery is slated to launch the massive primary module for Japan’s Kibo lab, though the mission will likely fly a few days later than its initial May 25th target due to delays with its external fuel tank, the agency said.

“It’s a first step for our Kibo construction,” said Kaoru Mamiya, vice president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which built the station’s Kibo lab. “We hope, the next time, the main module will be added to the station.”

Mamiya said he looks forward to continued cooperation with NASA and other ISS partners beyond the station program.