EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, California (Reuters) - U.S. space shuttle Atlantis landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Friday after a fiery descent through the Earth’s atmosphere that capped a two-week mission to the International Space Station.
The shuttle with seven astronauts on board touched down at Edwards at 3:49 p.m. EDT (1949 GMT), shimmering in the heat and sending up a plume of brownish-gray dust as its rear wheels hit the 15,000-foot (4,570-metre) runway.
“Welcome back. Congratulations on a great mission,” shuttle communicator Tony Antonelli radioed Atlantis commander Frederick Sturckow from Mission Control in Houston as the spaceship’s parachute billowed out in the desert air.
Flight directors tried on Thursday and again on Friday to land Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the shuttle’s home port, but had to wave off due to clouds and rain, which can damage the shuttle’s heat shield.
Conditions at the back-up landing site in the Mojave Desert, north of Los Angeles, were far more favorable with clear skies and light winds. But it was hot — 101 degrees Fahrenheit — which gave the shuttle a ghostly look as it glided through the shimmering heat waves.
The U.S. space agency would have preferred to land at Kennedy to save the expense and time required to piggyback the shuttle back across country on a modified Boeing 747.
The shuttle had been on a two-week construction mission to the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that is a little more than half finished.
The shuttle carted a third pair of power-producing solar wing panels to the station and its crew conducted four spacewalks to install them, fold up another older wing that will be moved to a new location and install equipment needed to prepare for the arrival of additional research laboratories.
The astronauts also had to repair a hole in the heat shield on Atlantis, which arrived in orbit with a corner of an insulating blanket torn loose.
The repair, a staple and stitch job by spacewalking astronaut Danny Olivas, held up well enough to get Atlantis back without damage, although the blanket did move back an inch during re-entry, said associate administrator for space operations Bill Gerstenmaier in a briefing at Kennedy.
NASA has been meticulous about scouring the shuttles for damage once they reach orbit since a heat shield failure triggered the destruction of the shuttle Columbia in 2003 and the deaths of seven astronauts.
The crew also delivered a new astronaut to the station. Clayton Anderson replaced station flight engineer Sunita Williams, who is returning home aboard Atlantis after a record-breaking six months in space.
Williams surpassed Shannon Lucid’s 188-day mission for the longest spaceflight by a woman.
NASA needs to fly 12 more construction missions to finish building the station before the end of 2010, when the shuttle fleet is due to be retired.
It also would like to squeeze in two resupply missions and a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Atlantis’ mission at the space station was overshadowed by a major computer breakdown in the Russian modules that could have led to the station being temporarily abandoned.
Work was continuing on the station computers, but Gerstenmaier said the computer crash may have taught NASA much about how electronics will perform on the space station-size ships the agency hopes to one day send to Mars.
“This mission is really a piece of exploration, if you think about it,” he said. “We may have learned something here on this flight with the computer malfunction that could pay huge benefits to us in the future.”
Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral