CAPE CANAVERAL — Their work in orbit accomplished, space shuttle Endeavour's astronauts got the green light Saturday to return to Earth, but were warned "pretty iffy" weather at the main landing site could send them to Edwards Air Force Base in California or keep them up an extra day.
Saturday afternoon — 24 hours before the planned landing — Mission Control informed the seven astronauts that Endeavour had been cleared for re-entry following analysis of data beamed down from a final thermal survey of their ship. The space shuttle was found to be free of any serious defects caused by space junk that could jeopardize the descent.
The astronauts noticed a small strip of material floating away as they checked out their flight systems, but Mission Control told them not to worry. It was merely a 3-inch label.
Astronaut Gregory Chamitoff was especially eager to come back: He has been off the planet, away from his wife and 3-year-old twins, since the end of May.
"My watch is telling me that it will be 182 days for me today away from home," Chamitoff said Saturday. "A lot of people have to spend time away from home, but I've been lucky to have a really spectacular place to live for the last half-year.
"I'm very proud that all of us here are leaving the space station a better, more spectacular place than it was when we arrived."
Endeavour and its crew left the international space station on Friday, ending a nearly two-week visit that set the stage for population growth next year. The astronauts furnished the orbiting outpost with a new bathroom, kitchen, exercise machine, sleeping quarters and recycling system designed to convert urine and sweat into drinking water.
NASA's goal is to double the size of the space station crew, to six, by June.