Atlantis' astronauts glided to a belated but textbook touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base, California today, wrapping up a 5.3 million mile mission to deliver the U.S. Laboratory Destiny to the International Space Station (ISS).
With Commander Ken Cockrell at the controls, Atlantis darted through high clouds over the Mojave Desert test center to touch down at 2:33 p.m. Central time on concrete runway 2-2. The landing was the 47th at Edwards to bring the 102nd flight in program history to a close.
Atlantis was diverted to California after broken clouds and precipitation formed over the landing strip at the Kennedy Space Center, preventing Atlantis from returning to the Florida spaceport in the two opportunities which were available today.
Instead, Entry Flight Director Leroy Cain ordered Atlantis to land 3000 miles to the West at Edwards, where the weather was deemed acceptable for landing. Cockrell, Pilot Mark Polansky and Mission Specialists Bob Curbeam, Marsha Ivins and Tom Jones were greeted by high, thin clouds at Edwards, but they posed no problem for Cockrell as he took over manual control of Atlantis a few minutes prior to landing.
The astronauts were scheduled to leave the orbiter about an hour after landing and will spend the night at Edwards before returning to Houston Wednesday afternoon.
After high winds thwarted Atlantis' homecoming Sunday and Monday, Cockrell and Polansky finally fired the ship's braking rockets at 1:27 p.m. Central time for the start of the Shuttle's hour-long descent back to Earth. Thirty-four minutes later, Atlantis and its astronauts reached the fringes of Earth's atmosphere and the first tug of gravity at an altitude of 400,000 feet.
Atlantis soared over the Pacific Ocean and the southern California coast north of Los Angeles, its computers honing in on the desert runway at Edwards. About four minutes before landing, Atlantis heralded its arrival at the landing site with a pair of double sonic booms as it went subsonic. Atlantis kicked up a small cloud of dust as its main gear met the runway and rolled out to a smooth stop as more clouds gathered around the Edwards complex.
Meanwhile, aboard the International Space Station, Expedition One Commander Bill Shepherd, Pilot Yuri Gidzenko and Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev spent the day activating additional systems in the recently delivered Destiny Laboratory and began preparations for Saturday's undocking and redocking of their Soyuz capsule from the aft docking port of the Zvezda module to the Earthward facing docking port of the Zarya module.
That relocation maneuver, which is scheduled to begin just after 4 a.m. Central time Saturday, will clear the Zvezda docking port for the arrival of an unmanned Progress resupply craft next week, delivering supplies for the next Expedition crew which will be launched on the Shuttle Discovery on March 8 on the STS-102 mission.
Atlantis' astronauts are scheduled to return to Houston Wednesday afternoon for a welcome home ceremony at Hangar 990 at Ellington Field near the Johnson Space Center at around 3:30 p.m. Central time. Any updates to the astronauts' schedule will be available Wednesday by calling the Johnson Space Center newsroom at 281-483-5111.
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