Space Shuttle Atlantis, concluding a 13-day flight to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, came in for a safe landing today at Edwards Air Force Base in California, delayed for two days by bad weather in Florida but little the worse for wear.
"Welcome home, Atlantis," called mission control in Houston. "Congratulations on a very successful mission."
Shuttle commander Scott Altman answered, "Thank you, Houston. That was a thrill from start to finish."
It was the end of perhaps the highest-profile shuttle mission since NASA resumed flying after the 2003 Columbia disaster. It included five complicated spacewalks -- lasting more than 36 hours, all told -- to replace or repair nine critical Hubble telescope components.
"I'd say that this mission has been an example of what the best and brightest of America can do working as a team," said Altman in an interview from orbit with ABC News.
"Hubble, as a scientific instrument, takes incredible images that are cutting edge, rewriting the textbooks," he said, "but at the same time bringing galaxies that are billions of light-years away into our own homes and hearts for us to look at and marvel at the beauty of the universe."
The flight lasted 12 days, 21 hours and 37 minutes. NASA said that after 197 orbits of the earth, Atlantis had traveled 5,279,124 miles.
NASA would have preferred to have the shuttle land in Florida, and had the astronauts prepare for landings there on Friday, Saturday and today. But Florida has been drenched in recent days by a stalled storm system, and mission managers decided not to wait any more.
Florida has been America's principle launch site since 1950 -- when it was a useful location because early rockets needed to crash harmlessly in the Atlantic Ocean. But the weather there is famously unstable, and NASA has lacked the billons it would cost to move. About a third of all shuttle landings have been diverted to the California desert.
ABC News was given uncommon access to the astronauts in the year leading up to the mission. We watched them train and were invited into their homes.
"I'm just an ordinary guy with an incredible job," said Mike Massimino, one of the crew's four spacewalking astronauts. "And I think it's important to share that with people."
In addition to Altman and Massimino, the crew included Greg Johnson, the pilot; Megan McArthur, the principal operator of the shuttle's robot arm; and spacewalkers Drew Feustel, Mike Good, and John Grunsfeld.
Three of the astronauts -- Altman, Grunsfeld and Massimino -- had flown servicing missions to the Hubble before. Grunsfeld, who was making his fifth flight and his third to the telescope, said he had become fond of it.
"It's hard not to think of Hubble as something alive," said Grunsfeld. "I really was thinking of Hubble as a friend."
Grunsfeld was asked if he felt any regret, seeing that friend for the last time when it was released from the shuttle's payload bay.
"I did not feel any sadness at all," he answered. "Once Hubble was between 300 and 400 feet away I turned to Scooter and said, 'Well, we really did it.' I felt satisfaction and joy that we left Hubble in the best shape of its life."
Space Shuttle Lands After Hubble Rescue Mission
Engineers now will give the telescope a thorough checkout to make sure all the repairs worked. They won't have final answers for a couple of months. They hope the telescope -- which would likely have stopped operating in a year or two without new batteries and gyroscopes -- will now last for another five to 10 years.
With Atlantis safely home, only eight space shuttle flights remain on NASA's manifest, all of them to complete assembly of the International Space Station.