Shuttle lands in California

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven landed in California on Sunday, winding up their exalted Hubble Space Telescope repair mission.

The shuttle touched down at about 11:40 a.m. eastern time after stormy weather in Florida prevented a return to NASA's home base.

Mission Control waited as long as possible, hoping the weather would improve at Florida's Kennedy Space Center before finally giving up and directing commander Scott Altman and his crew to the backup landing site in the Mojave Desert. Conditions there were ideal.

"We could not get comfortable with the KSC weather," Mission Control said, referring to Kennedy.

"Copy that, we're going to Edwards," Altman replied.

NASA passed up Sunday's first landing opportunity at Kennedy because of storm clouds offshore. The astronauts took an extra swing around the world as flight controllers kept watch over the increasingly overcast sky. When told of the pristine conditions awaiting him at Edwards Air Force Base, Altman said, "A beautiful day in the desert."

Minutes later, Altman and his co-pilot fired the braking rockets and set Atlantis on its hourlong descent.

After 13 days in orbit, many of them tending to Hubble, Altman and his crew were anxious to get back on the ground. They were supposed to return to Earth on Friday, but NASA opted to keep the astronauts circling the world in case the bad weather from a massive low-pressure system eased up.

NASA loses at least a week of work and close to $2 million in ferry costs by landing in California. And the astronauts will have to wait another day to be reunited with their families, who were in Florida.

Atlantis' astronauts left behind a refurbished Hubble that scientists say is better than ever and should keep churning out pictures of the universe for another five to 10 years. They carried out five spacewalks to give the 19-year-old observatory new science instruments, pointing devices and batteries, and fix a pair of broken instruments, something never before attempted. Stuck bolts and other difficulties made much of the work harder than expected.

The $1 billion overhaul was the last for Hubble and, thanks to the crew's valiant effort, won praise from President Barack Obama and members of Congress. But with space shuttles retiring next year, no more astronauts will visit the telescope, and NASA expects to steer it into the Pacific sometime in the early 2020s.

As a souvenir for the masses, the astronauts were bringing back the old wide-field camera they pulled out, so it can be put on display at the Smithsonian Institution. The replacement camera and other new instruments will enable Hubble to peer deeper into the universe, to within 500 million to 600 million years of creation.

It will take almost all summer for scientists to check out all the new telescope systems. NASA expects to release the first picture in early September.

This mission almost didn't happen. It was canceled in 2004, a year after the Columbia tragedy, because of the dangers of flying into a 350-mile-high orbit that did not offer any shelter in case Atlantis suffered damage from launch debris or space junk. The public protest was intense, and NASA reinstated the flight after developing a rescue plan and shuttle repair kits.

Shuttle Endeavour was on standby for a possible rescue mission until late last week, after inspections found Atlantis' thermal shielding to be solid for re-entry. Endeavour now will be prepped for a June flight to the international space station.

Shuttle lands in California 05/24/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 24, 2009 11:48am]

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