Shuttle Atlantis glides to smooth California landing

The shuttle Atlantis, running two days late because of bad weather in Florida, glided to a California landing Sunday to close out a successful Hubble Space Telescope repair mission.

Delayed two days by stormy Florida weather, the shuttle Atlantis glided to a smooth California landing Sunday, closing out a successful mission to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope with a picture-perfect Mojave Desert touchdown.

With commander Scott Altman and pilot Gregory C. Johnson at the controls, Atlantis crossed the coast of California northwest of Los Angeles on a steep descent to Edwards Air Force Base, rattling the countryside with twin sonic booms.

Taking over manual control at an altitude of about 50,000 feet, Altman guided the shuttle through a sweeping 200-degree left-overhead turn to line up on runway 22 at the fabled Air Force test center.

As Altman flared the shuttle's descent and pulled its nose up slightly on final approach, Johnson lowered the landing gear and Atlantis settled to a smooth touchdown at 11:39:05 a.m. EDT to close out NASA's final mission to Hubble.

Space shuttle Atlantis settles to runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. NASA TV

"Houston, Atlantis, wheels stopped, Edwards, 22!" Altman radioed mission control at the Johnson Space Center as Atlantis rolled to a halt.

"Welcome home, Atlantis," astronaut Gregory H. Johnson replied from Houston. "Congratulations on a very successful mission, giving Hubble a new set of eyes that will continue to expand our knowledge of the universe."

"Thank you, Houston, it was a thrill from start to finish," Altman said. "We've had a great ride. It took a whole team across the country to pull it off. Our hats are off to you all. Thank you so much."

Mission duration was 12 days 21 hours 37 minutes and nine seconds for a flight covering 5.2 million miles and 197 complete orbits since blastoff May 11 from Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

"I didn't realize it was going to be so hard to get back to the Earth!" Altman joked after a brief walk-around inspection of the shuttle. "We're all thrilled to have the mission complete."

Altman, Johnson, flight engineer Megan McArthur and spacewalkers John Grunsfeld, Michael Massimino, Andrew Feustel, and Michael Good planned to fly back to Houston late Sunday or early Monday for reunions with family and friends.

"Now and only now can we declare this mission a total success," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science. "We've now entered the second chapter of the great American comeback story.

"This mission...was canceled January 16, 2004," he said, referring to post-Columbia safety concerns. "If you'd have told me on that day I'd be sitting here five years later with a totally successful five-EVA mission, with a brand new Hubble once again that will probably operate well into the third decade of its life, I wouldn't have bet you a penny. But Hubble is the great American comeback story, chapter two."

Weiler said engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center's Space Telescope Operations Control Center are in the process of testing Hubble's new instruments and subsystems and "everything is going very smoothly, no problems so far."

Landing in California will add a week to 10 days to Atlantis' processing for its next mission in November and cost NASA about $1.8 million. It also will delay access to an electronics box that failed at launch May 11. Engineers want to make sure a short circuit affecting the aerosurface actuator in question will not affect any systems aboard the shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for launch June 13.

Atlantis rolls down the runway after a successful re-entry. NASA

Mike Moses, director of shuttle integration at the Kennedy Space Center, said he is confident the issue will be resolved in time for Endeavour's flight. Likewise, launch Director Mike Leinbach said Atlantis' diversion to Edwards will have no direct impact on Endeavour's processing.

Because Endeavour was on hot standby for launch on an emergency rescue mission in case the Atlantis astronauts ran into any major problems, much of its launch processing is already complete.

"One of the key things we did in the processing meetings was make sure we had a sufficient work force to go out to California, process Atlantis and get her ready to come home in addition to processing Endeavour here," he said. "When you think about it, there's not much left to do on Endeavour."

Engineers plan to move Endeavour from launch pad 39B to pad 39A next Friday. A flight readiness review is on tap June 3.

"A lot of the work on Endeavour's already done, we've got a good head start on that," Leinbach said. "Without a doubt, we have sufficient people to process them, make that 13th launch date. It's just not an issue for us."

Altman and company had hoped to close out the 126th shuttle mission Friday with a landing at the Kennedy Space Center. But low clouds and thundershowers at the Florida spaceport forced entry Flight Director Norm Knight to order a waveoff in hopes of better conditions Saturday.

The astronauts ran into more of the same Saturday. Knight considered diverting the crew to Edwards then, but ended up deciding to wave off another day in hopes of better weather Sunday. Atlantis had enough on-board supplies to remain in orbit through Monday and forecasters were predicting slightly better conditions in Florida for the crew's third attempt.

Conditions were, in fact, better but with offshore clouds and rain threatening to move into the landing zone, Knight ordered another waveoff and diverted the crew to Edwards to close out a high-stakes mission that left the Hubble Space Telescope in its best health since launch in 1990.

Over the course of five back-to-back spacewalks, the Atlantis astronauts installed two new instruments, repaired two others, replaced the observatory's six batteries and stabilizing gyroscopes, installed a new star sensor, a replacement science computer and three insulation panels.

Engineers at the Space Telescope Operations Control Center say it will take weeks to calibrate and test the new instruments and return Hubble to normal service. The first images from the refurbished telescope are expected in early September.

"Hubble has been a roller coaster ride going all the way back to the '80s," Weiler told CBS News. "It's mighty sweet to see (Atlantis' mission) happen, it's even sweeter to see it happen successfully."

The upgrades should permit Hubble to operate an additional five years, and possible 10, Weiler said.

"We've got new gyros, new instruments, old instruments that were dead and are now alive, what more could you ask for?" he said. "It's sad to know this is the end of an era. It's not the end of Hubble, it's the beginning of the new Hubble. But it's the last time we'll be servicing the Hubble with (the shuttle). And that's sad.

"But on the other hand, we've had a good ride. It was supposed to be a 10- to 15-year mission. We're in our 19th year, we may get 29 years. That's not a bad return on investment."

Atlantis' landing kicks off a busy few weeks for NASA. On Wednesday, at 6:34 a.m. EDT, the Russians plan to launch the Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome carrying three additional astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station, boosting the lab's crew to six for the first time.

Expedition 19 commander Gennady Padalka, flight engineer Michael Barratt, a NASA physician-astronaut, and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will be joined by Roman Romanenko, a second-generation cosmonaut, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk.

At the Kennedy Space Center, meanwhile, engineers plan to follow the Soyuz launch with Endeavour's takeoff on a five-spacewalk assembly mission. Because of temperature constraints related to the station's orbit, NASA will only have one week to get Endeavour off the ground or the flight will be delayed to mid July.

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About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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