'Endeavour,' the next-to-last space shuttle, returns from flight

Space shuttle Endeavour is towed from NASA’s landing facility after its early morning arrival Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center. It was Endeavour’s 25th mission. Atlantis will make the last shuttle flight in July.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Space shuttle Endeavour is towed from NASA’s landing facility after its early morning arrival Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center. It was Endeavour’s 25th mission. Atlantis will make the last shuttle flight in July.

Space shuttle Endeavour and its six astronauts returned to Earth early Wednesday, closing out the next-to-last mission in NASA's 30-year program with a safe middle-of-the-night landing at Cape Canaveral.

Endeavour glided down onto the runway one final time under the cover of darkness, just as Atlantis, the last shuttle bound for space, arrived at the launch pad for the grand finale in five weeks.

Commander Mark Kelly brought Endeavour to a stop before hundreds of onlookers that included the four Atlantis astronauts who will fly in July.

His wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who attended the May 16 launch, remained behind at her rehab center in Houston during the return.

On Monday, she had the stitches removed from the skull reconstruction she underwent just two days into his flight.

Kelly waited hours before calling her, so he wouldn't wake her up.

The astronauts installed a $2 billion cosmic ray detector, an extension beam and a platform full of spare parts, enough to keep the station operating in the shuttle-less decade ahead.

In addition to Kelly, the others on board Endeavour were Greg Johnson, mission specialists Mike Fincke, Drew Feustel and Gregory Chamitoff and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori of Italy.

Built to replace the destroyed Challenger, Endeavour first soared in 1992 on a satellite-rescue mission that saw a record-setting three spacewalkers grab the wayward craft. Other highlights for the baby of the shuttle fleet: the first repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, to fix its blurred vision, and NASA's first flight to assemble the space station in 1998.

The official tally for Endeavour: 170 crew members, 299 days in space, 4,671 orbits of Earth and 122,883,151 miles. It travels early next year to a museum in California.

'Endeavour,' the next-to-last space shuttle, returns from flight 06/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 10:11pm]

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