Atlantis Home Safely

Sept. 21, 2006 — -- Space Shuttle Atlantis, gliding through a starry sky, safely landed this morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It was the end of a 12-day mission, during which six astronauts installed a new solar-power array on the International Space Station -- and faced a few minor but vexing problems along the way.

"Wheels stop," said CAPCOM Tony Antonelli, after the shuttle came to rest on the runway at 6:22 a.m. ET.

"Glad to be back. It was a great team effort, so I think assembly is off to a good start," said Atlantis' commander, Brent Jett.

This was the first flight since 2002 to deliver a sizable new component to the space station, which needs to be finished so that the shuttle fleet can be retired in 2010.

A Day Late

Atlantis was supposed to land Wednesday morning, but Mission Control delayed it for 24 hours when a mysterious piece of debris was spotted in orbit on Tuesday, floating slowly away from the shuttle.

In the following 24 hours, four more small objects were reported by the crew.

Engineers never did figure out what they were, but they ordered the astronauts to scan the shuttle's exterior from end to end, using cameras at the end of the ship's robot arm.

Such inspections have been routine since the Columbia disaster in 2003 -- Atlantis' crew had already gone over the spacecraft's exterior twice on this flight.

NASA was concerned enough to order a third going-over, however, to make sure the shuttle's heat-shield tiles and wings had not been damaged.

After a 24-hour wait, NASA gave the all-clear.

"Nothing was found to be missing from the thermal protection system -- the heat shield -- or, for that matter, from any other part of Atlantis," said Wayne Hale, the shuttle program manager in Houston.

This morning's landing went without a hitch.

The astronauts onboard the International Space Station, about 220 miles above and ahead of the shuttle at retrofire, were able to watch the streak of superheated air it formed as it entered the atmosphere.

"It's really clear," said space station astronaut Jeff Williams, who has been in space for nearly six months. "And I can see thunderstorms below it."

This was the 114th safe landing since the shuttle program began in 1981, and the 21st to take place at night.

Atlantis was all but invisible to people on the ground as it made its final approach, about 45 minutes before sunrise in Florida.

The runway was rightly lit by xenon lamps.

The shuttle will be thoroughly inspected by engineers, curious to see whether they can find any explanation for those pieces of debris.

NASA, meanwhile, says it hopes it can launch another shuttle mission in December.