KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--The shuttle Endeavour dropped out of orbit and glided back to Florida Friday, wrapping up a 16-day space station construction mission and bringing Japan's first long-duration astronaut back to Earth after four and a half months in weightlessness.
Descending through a partly cloudy sky, commander Mark Polansky pulled the shuttle's nose up just before reaching the runway, pilot Douglas Hurley deployed the spaceplane's landing gear and Endeavour settled to a picture-perfect landing at 10:48:08 a.m. EDT.
Barreling down the runway at more than 200 mph, Hurley released a red-and-white braking parachute, the shuttle's nose dropped to the runway and Polansky guided the ship to a stop on the runway centerline.
"Houston, Endeavour, wheels stopped," he radioed in a traditional post-landing call to mission control.
"Roger wheels stopped, Endeavour. Welcome home," astronaut Alan Poindexter replied from the Johnson Space Center. "Congratulations on a superb mission from beginning to end. Very well done."
"Well, thanks to you and the whole team," Polansky said. "That's what it's all about. And we're happy to be home."
Mission duration was 15 days 16 hours 44 minutes and 58 seconds for a voyage spanning 248 complete orbits and 6.5 million miles since blastoff July 15 from launch complex 39A.
Polansky, Hurley, flight engineer Julie Payette, David Wolf, Christopher Cassidy and Thomas Marshburn doffed their pressure suits and left the shuttle and their crew transport vehicle about an hour and a half after landing, welcomed home by new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other senior managers.
"What a fantastic mission!" Polansky said on the runway after a brief walk-around inspection of Endeavour. "We are thrilled to be a part of a team that is able to accomplish missions like this.
What can we say but thanks to everybody at the Kennedy Space Center for working so hard on Endeavour. It's a beautiful vehicle and we enjoyed every minute of it. Hopefully we brought it back in good shape."
Returning space station flight engineer Koichi Wakata, launched to the International Space Station aboard the shuttle Discovery last March, enjoyed an extra month in space when Endeavour's launch was delayed from June 13 to July 15 by technical problems and bad weather.
To ease his return to the unfamiliar tug of Earth's gravity, Wakata made the return to Earth resting on his back in a recumbent seat on Endeavour's lower deck. Making a somewhat surprising appearance at a post-landing news conference four hours after touchdown, he told reporters "I feel great."
"When the hatch opened, I really smelled the grass from the ground and just glad to be back home," he said. "I'm feeling great. Still feeling a little shaky when I walk, but I'm feeling very good."
On the eve of his 46th birthday, Wakata said, "I'm just looking forward to having a lot of sushi and birthday cake. I think it's in production somewhere, so I'm very much looking forward to that."
"You invited your whole crew, right?" Polansky joked.
"Yes," Wakata laughed. "Can you handle raw fish?"
Endeavour's crew ferried Wakata's replacement into orbit -- astronaut Timothy Kopra -- and carried out five spacewalks to attach a sophisticated experiment platform to the Japanese Kibo laboratory module, replacing aging solar array batteries and attaching three spare components to the station's main truss.
"Completing the assembly of all Kibo elements (is) extremely important to our country," said Keiji Tachikawa, director of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. "In addition, gaining valuable knowledge and experience from astronaut Wakata, the first Japanese member of a long-duration mission crew aboard the ISS, will advance our country's future manned space activity."
Along with completing the Kibo installation, the Endeavour astronauts also released a jammed payload attachment mechanism, installed television cameras on the Japanese experiment shelf, and made a wiring change to put two of the station's stabilizing gyroscopes on separate circuits, easing concerns about a single failure that could take down both units.
"We got everything accomplished aboard space station that we needed to with this mission," said Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of space operations at NASA headquarters. "The planning was outstanding, the work was excellent, the vehicle performed extremely well.
"What an amazing flight this was," he said. "This was a truly phenomenal mission."
With Endeavour back on the ground, NASA is pressing ahead with work to ready the shuttle Discovery for launch around August 25 on a mission to deliver supplies and equipment to the space station.
Rollout to launch pad 39A is targeted for Monday, after additional work to test the foam insulation on the central part of Discovery's external tank. The tests were ordered in the wake of problems during Endeavour's launch when an unusual amount of "intertank" foam peeled off during the climb to space.
Most of the debris came off after Endeavour was out of the dense lower atmosphere when the shuttle's heat shield is most vulnerable to impact damage. But engineers want to make sure there is not a generic problem of some sort that might also affect the performance of Discovery's tank.
Engineers already had pull tested some 150 foam cores around the intertank of ET-132, but an additional 18 "plug-pull" tests were ordered Thursday.
Still unresolved is what caused the foam to come off in the first place. It's not yet clear whether a "root cause" must be in hand and understood before Discovery can be cleared for flight or whether the pull tests and data analysis alone will be enough.
Kopra and his new space station crewmates -- Expedition 20 commander Gennady Padalka, Michael Barratt, Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk -- watched Endeavour's landing via television uplinked from mission control.
Barratt and Thirsk continued repair work today to recover use of the station's U.S. carbon dioxide removal assembly, or CDRA, which was knocked out of action last weekend and again Wednesday by a presumed short circuit in a heating element.
The astronauts spent the entire day Thursday trying to repair the complex device before running into questions about how to isolate the suspect heater element. Engineers are hopeful the repairs can be completed later today.
Updated at 3:50 p.m. EDT: Added comments from Wakata during a post-landing news conference.