KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--The shuttle Atlantis dropped out of a crystal clear Florida sky and glided to a "picture-perfect" landing at the Kennedy Space Center Friday to close out a successful 11-day space station mission, bringing astronaut Nicole Stott back to Earth after 91 days in space.
With commander Charles Hobaugh at the controls, Atlantis executed a sweeping right overhead turn to line up on runway 33, pilot Barry Wilmore deployed the ship's landing gear and the shuttle settled to a tire-smoking touchdown at 9:44:23 a.m. EST.
"Houston, Atlantis, wheels stopped," Hobaugh radioed as the orbiter rolled to a halt on the runway center line.
"Roger, wheels stopped, Atlantis, that was a picture-perfect end to a top-fuel mission to the space station," replied astronaut Chris Ferguson from mission control at the Johnson Space Center. "Everybody, welcome back to Earth, especially you, Nicole."
Hobaugh, Wilmore, flight engineer Leland Melvin, and spacewalkers Robert Satcher, Michael Foreman, and Randolph Bresnik doffed their pressure suits for a traditional runway inspection about an hour and a half after touchdown.
"We really had truly an amazing mission," Hobaugh said on the runway. "It was not us, it was not any single group, but it was just an incredible team from all around the nation.
"We were lucky, I mean, part of it's luck and part of it's just pure, great skill, workmanship in processing Atlantis, getting it ready for us. We had no hitches, we went off on time, we landed on time. ... Nicole came back with us, she's doing great, she's headed back to see her family."
Launched to the lab in August, Stott made the trip back to Earth resting on her back in a recumbent seat on the shuttle's lower deck to ease her return to gravity after 91 days in orbit.
Flight surgeons were standing by to help her off the shuttle and carry out initial medical checks before accompanying her to crew quarters for a more detailed exam. Looking comfortable and in good spirits, she told a NASA interviewer a few hours later that while her vestibular system had not yet re-adapted to gravity, she was in good shape and glad to be home.
"As you move, everything else seems to be moving around you," she said. "And it's not a spinning, dizzy feel, it's more if I get up, then everything else seems to want to move up. ... But other than that, the main thing was when they opened the hatch, it smelled like fresh, clean, fall air. And that was really nice."
Her husband and 7-year-old son were on hand to welcome her back to Earth and "I have the promise of a Coca-Cola with crushed ice in a styrofoam cup and some good food, Thanksgiving left overs, waiting for me upstairs. There are also nice, warm showers here so that's a definite luxury I think I will enjoy for some time."
Stott, Hobaugh, Wilmore, Melvin, Foreman, and Satcher planned to fly back to Houston early Saturday. Bresnik, whose wife Rebecca gave birth to the couple's second child on Saturday, flew home right away aboard a NASA training jet to meet his daughter for the first time.
Stott is the last space station crew member to launch and land aboard a space shuttle. With just five more shuttle missions before the fleet is retired next year, all future U.S. station astronauts will fly to and from the lab complex aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.
Stott's former station crewmates face a busy weekend in orbit preparing for the December 1 departure and landing of Expedition 21 commander Frank De Winne of Belgium, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, who were launched to the lab May 27. They are scheduled to land in Kazakhstan aboard the Soyuz TMA-15 capsule around 2:16 a.m. EST Tuesday to close out a 188-day stay in space.
Expedition 22 commander Jeffrey Williams and cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, who arrived at the lab complex in October, will have the outpost to themselves until December 23 when three fresh crew members--cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, astronaut Timothy Creamer and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi--are scheduled to arrive.
Hobaugh and his shuttle crewmates delivered nearly 15 tons of spare parts and equipment to the space station, including two pallets loaded with large components as a hedge against failures after the shuttle is retired.
The gear included two orientation control gyroscopes, a spare pump module, nitrogen pressurization tank and ammonia coolant for the lab's external cooling system, equipment for the mobile transporter that carries the station's mechanical arm, a new latching end effector, or hand, for the space crane, and equipment for the lab's electrical system.
The astronauts also carried out three spacewalks to prepare the complex for the attachment of NASA's final major module in February and the eventual arrival of additional spare parts and equipment that will be ferried up next year. In addition, a high-pressure oxygen tank was attached to the station's Quest airlock module.
For the trip back to Earth, the shuttle carried 2,100 pounds of station gear, including a urine distillation centrifuge that failed shortly before Atlantis took off. A replacement will be carried aloft on the next shuttle mission in February.
Only five shuttle flights reamin on NASA's manifest between now and the end of September as the agency works to complete the space station and retire the fleet.
UPDATED at 4 p.m. EST: Astronaut Randy Bresnik flew back to Houston shortly after landing to meet his new daughter; adding comments from Stott.