E D W A R D S A I R F O R C E B A S E, Calif., Feb. 20, 2001 -- Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew landed in the Mojave Desert today after three straight days of bad weather prevented the ship from returning to its Florida home port.
Atlantis swooped through a hazy sky and touched down at 12:33 p.m. PT — 13 days after lifting off for the international space station. During the mission, the five astronauts delivered and installed a $1.4 billion laboratory that is considered the most sophisticated research module ever to fly in space.
"Welcome back to Earth after placing our Destiny in space," Mission Control said, referring to the new laboratory.
NASA officials had hoped to land the shuttle at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but clouds blocked a touchdown for three days and forced a detour to Edwards Air Force Base in California. A loud sonic boom was heard in the Los Angeles area five minutes earlier as the shuttle descended through the atmosphere over Southern California.
An Edwards landing requires the shuttle to be ferried back to Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 at a cost of nearly $1 million.
Space shuttle landings are infrequent at Edwards, which served as the main touchdown site until the early 1990s. The last shuttle landing at Edwards was in October. The last one before that was in 1996.
Because of the weather delays, Cockrell and his crew spent two days circling Earth with little to do except gaze at Earth, snap pictures and exercise on a stationary cycle.
During their one week at space station Alpha, the astronauts delivered and then hooked up NASA's most expensive piece of the space station, the Destiny laboratory.
Three spacewalks were needed to install the lab, hang a shutter on its porthole — the finest optical-quality window ever built into a spacecraft — and attach other gear to the space station. It will be another few weeks before Destiny gets any science experiments; space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to lift off March 8 with the first batch. But already, the computer-filled lab module is controlling the steering of the space station and saving precious rocket-thruster fuel.
With the addition of Destiny, Alpha now has more live-in space than any of the world's previous space stations. The space station stretches 171 feet in length, 28 feet longer than before.
The next major component to fly to the space station, in April, is the Canadian-built robot arm. An American-made airlock, a pressure-change room for spacewalkers, is supposed to go up in June.
At least two more laboratories, supplied by the Europeans and Japanese, are to be delivered before space station construction ends in 2006.