CAPE CANAVERAL — The space shuttle Atlantis landed safely in cool but clear weather at 9:44 Friday morning at Kennedy Space Center.
The crew of seven astronauts on board included Clearwater native Nicole Passonno Stott. She had been living and working at the International Space Station since late August. Friday was her 91st day in orbit and marked the end of her first trip to space.
"Everybody, welcome back to Earth, especially you, Nicole," Mission Control radioed after the landing.
In an afternoon interview on NASA TV, Stott said she was overwhelmed and thankful, and that space feels like "fresh, clean fall air."
Stott, 47, Clearwater High School Class of 1980, lives in Houston with her husband and 7-year-old son, but she got her master's degree in engineering management at the University of Central Florida and still has friends and relatives in the Tampa Bay area.
From reading her e-mails and talking to her on the phone over the last few months, her sister and friends said this week, they got the sense that this much-anticipated experience exceeded even her high expectations, and gave her a kind of perspective most people can hardly fathom.
"You talk to her, and you can hear the joy in her voice," said her sister, Shelly Rocktoff, who lives in Tarpon Springs.
"She talks about how beautiful it is, and how fragile the earth looks from way up there," said one of her friends from Clearwater, Karen Chamberlin, who now lives in Maitland. "She said when the sun's hitting it, it has this incredible glow, set against that dark black."
Said Oldsmar friend David Martin: "She's in her element.
"I'm addicted to the NASA channel," he said. "It's been a ball, watching her bounce around up there."
Stott worked her way up to this moment within NASA's hierarchy. She started here in 1988 and was a shuttle-processing engineer for 10 years. She's also been a flight engineer and a project engineer and has served in Houston in the aircraft operations division. She entered the astronaut training program in 2000.
Only five shuttle missions remain until the nation shutters its shuttle program. The program began in 1981. Stott is one of the astronauts who's been picked to make the final flight, slated to launch Sept. 16, 2010.
On this trip, she did spacewalks, planted flowers with space seeds, built a $5 million treadmill, operated a robotic arm and videoconferenced with her son's school in Houston, East Lake High in Tarpon Springs and Bono of the band U2.
She wore a yellow bracelet that read "Mommy Loves Roman."
She e-mailed friends photos of her view of the Tampa Bay area and also of her wearing a Clearwater Tornadoes T-shirt and holding a school flag.
She sent a note to old teachers and classmates. "It's WAY cool up here!!!" she wrote.
She also blogged on NASA.com about where she was, "an awe inspiring place," and what she saw when she looked down.
"The Earth, our planet," she wrote last month, "is indescribably beautiful. It is placed perfectly against the blackest black I have ever seen. … It is calm and it is dynamic.
"Every time I look out one of our windows," she wrote, "I am surprised by some new and beautiful discovery."
She tweeted, too, using the name @Astro_Nicole to send from space tweets like this:
"Launch was an incredible kick off the pad! Smiled the whole way!"
"First glimpse of the ISS like a shining star off in the distant black."
"1st time watched sphere of moonlight move across dark Earth — very cool the way it lit up rivers & lakes. Like a spotlight moving across ground."
Atlantis went up Nov. 16 for an 11-day mission to drop off at the space station 27,000 pounds of equipment to keep the floating research observatory running for up to another decade. The load included pumps, tanks, gyroscopes, battery chargers, extra equipment for robotic arms and materials for ongoing science experiments.
NASA is using the big shuttle cargo bay to stock the station as much as it can. The shuttles are the station's biggest suppliers. Officials are hoping to keep the station operating until 2015, possibly 2020, if President Barack Obama gives the go-ahead.
This Atlantis trip was the fifth shuttle trip this year and the 129th overall. On the mission: Barry E. Wilmore, a Navy captain; mission specialists Leland Melvin, a scientist and former NFL player; Mike Foreman, a Navy captain and veteran spacewalker; Marine Lt. Col. Randy Bresnick; and Robert Satcher, an orthopedic surgeon.
When it arrived, Stott, who traveled to space on Aug. 28 on the shuttle Discovery, spotted her ride home from the space station from 3 miles out.
"I have my ticket all ready and stamped, waiting for you guys when you get here," she radioed to the shuttle commander. "You look beautiful out there."
On Tuesday, in a news conference, she told reporters she was looking forward to getting home and eating some pizza with a soda with ice.
On Friday morning, a little more than three minutes before the shuttle was scheduled to touch down, it broke the sound barrier, a low quick boom-boom. People watching near the runway, pointing binoculars and cameras up toward the sky to the south, heard it before they saw it. And then there it was: a small speck, glistening in the sun, approaching through the gorgeous bright blue.
Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751.