CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour ended a 13-day spaceflight on Tuesday, apparently unscathed during its supersonic descent through the atmosphere despite a small tear in its heat shield.
The shuttle, with a gouge in its protective belly tiles caused by a piece of foam insulation that broke off during launch, returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida a day earlier than planned because of the threat that Hurricane Dean could force the evacuation of its Houston control center.
The damaged tile proved no problem during the return to Earth and the storm ended up veering south, striking Mexico.
Having already departed from the International Space Station, where Endeavour and its crew had spent nine days installing new components and delivering supplies, NASA decided to proceed with the landing, pending good weather in Florida.
The skies were partly cloudy but calm as shuttle commander Scott Kelly took control of the 100-tonne spaceship during the final approach to the shuttle’s home port.
He gently nosed Endeavour onto a 3-mile (4.8-km), canal-lined runway at 12:32 p.m. EDT/1632 GMT just a short distance from the seaside launch pad where the shuttle’s journey began on Aug 8.
“It’s just a beautiful sight to see an orbiter come home to Florida,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach.
About an hour after touchdown, five of Endeavour’s six astronauts walked out of a specially equipped van on the runway where they had gone for initial medical checks.
Teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan, who trained as the backup to teacher Christa McAuliffe for the ill-fated Challenger shuttle mission in 1986, stayed aboard.
“This was Barbara’s first flight. She was feeling just a little bit under the weather,” NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who was among the officials greeting the crew at the runway, told reporters.
“She was doing just fine, but she wasn’t able to stand up and walk around out in Florida heat. Having stood up and walked around out there in the Florida heat, I was about ready to join her,” he added.
The Endeavour crew and NASA officials inspected the 3-inch (7.5-cm) gash that extended over two of the ship’s heat-resistant belly tiles.
NASA managers had said they were confident the tile damage, which was caused by a piece of foam insulation that fell off the shuttle’s fuel tank, would pose no threat to the ship when it flew through the atmosphere prior to landing.
A similar incident triggered the breakup of shuttle Columbia and the deaths of seven astronauts in 2003.
The fuel tank was modified after the accident and NASA is looking at additional changes before the shuttle flies again.
The next flight is targeted for October 23 when a connecting hub will be installed on the station so two new laboratories built by Europe and Japan can be linked up to the complex later this year and in 2008.