Space Shuttle Endeavour Returns From Final Mission
NASA's youngest shuttle orbiter and its six-member crew returned to Earth in a Tuesday night landing, completing their mission to deliver to the International Space Station supplies and a multi-billion dollar particle physics detector that may help scientists better understand the formation of the universe. The flight, numbered STS-134, was the 25th and final for Endeavour –and the next-to-last for the 30-year shuttle program.
The shuttle touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on schedule. Commander Mark Kelly and his crewmates received medical checks shortly after. Then they returned to the runway where Endeavour stood and a familiar crowd gathered. One by one, the veteran astronauts were greeted back from the 16-day voyage with handshakes and hugs-- first from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and then other senior officials.
"It's great to be bringing Endeavour back,” Kelly told the media on the runway. He also thanked his crew: pilot Greg H. Johnson, spacewalkers Mike Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Drew Feustel and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori.
Endeavour landed 11:35 p.m. PDT (Wednesday 2:35 a.m. local time).
Onlookers included the four astronauts who will fly the last shuttle mission in July. Kelly's wife, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, however stayed back in Houston where she continues to recover from a head wound.
Managers and crew members at post-landing news conferences Wednesday said mission objectives were achieved, including the top science priority: installing the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 to the outside of the space station.
The AMS-2, a 15,251-pound instrument composed of a large magnet and eight detectors, is designed to search for various types of unusual matter by tracking particles that pass through the magnet. Hundreds of scientists from 16 countries collaborated on the effort led by Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Information about the particles is expected to help researchers determine what the universe is made of and how it began.
Endeavour's crew also delivered the Express Logistics Carrier-3, which carried spare hardware; tested an automated rendezvous and docking system called STORRM, or Sensor Test for Orion Relative Navigation Risk Mitigation; and performed four spacewalks, the last ones scheduled for shuttle astronauts at the space station.
"What a great ending,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations, adding the AMS-2 is already sending data back to the ground.
Endeavour, assembled in Palmdale, Calif., was named after the first ship commanded by 18th-century British explorer and astronomer James Cook. The orbiter was built to replace Challenger, which in 1986 exploded 73 seconds after liftoff and killed all seven astronauts onboard. Construction of Endeavour began in 1987 and completed in 1990. The orbiter launched on its first mission in 1992.
The shuttle program's impending retirement, along with Giffords' road to recovery and President Barack Obama's interest in attending the launching, had widely contributed attention to Endeavour's final mission.
In January, Giffords was shot in the head from an assassination attempt. It led NASA to name a backup commander so Kelly could care for his wife. Kelly finally resumed training in February, saying Giffords had improved so significantly that the decision to rejoin the mission became easier and it was what his wife would have wanted.
Kelly, at a news conference following landing, said he did not call Giffords yet because she was probably asleep, adding he wasn't sure if she had watched the crew land. “What am I going to say to her? I really miss her and can't wait to get back there [thursday].”
Endeavour and the STS-134 crew were supposed to lift off from Kennedy on April 29. The president and his family were on their way to the site, and a now-rehabilitating Giffords was already there, when a postponement was announced less than four hours before the scheduled takeoff. Shuttle managers had encountered a heaters failure (which was later traced back to a faulty power distribution box that has since been replaced). The Obamas visited Kennedy anyway, and spoke with the astronauts and Giffords.
On May 16, the shuttle finally launched. As many as 500,000 people--200,000 less than what was anticipated for the first launch attempt-- were back along the Space Coast to watch. Giffords also returned and viewed the flight in private at Kennedy.
Two days after takeoff, the shuttle astronauts docked to the space station, a laboratory in low-Earth orbit. There they were greeted by the six residents onboard: Russian cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev, Dmitry Kondratyev; European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli; and NASA astronauts Catherine Coleman and Ron Garan.
Endeavour has spent 299 days in space and traveled more than 122.8 million miles during its 25 flights.
Additional milestones during the orbiter's final mission: The first ever papal call to the space station was made. Three space station residents departed back to Earth in their Soyuz capsule, which marked the first time a Soyuz capsule undocked from the complex while a shuttle orbiter was docked there. Vittori was the last non-NASA astronaut to ride a shuttle. And Fincke became the U.S. astronaut who has spent the most time in space, with a record now of 382 days; the previous titleholder was Peggy Whitson, who logged 377 days.
"We were impressed; we were excited like five-year-olds at a roller-coaster park,” Fincke said of the view of the upgraded space station after Endeavour had undocked.
Endeavour is expected to be shipped sometime next year to the California Science Center in Los Angeles for permanent display.
The final shuttle mission, the 135th of the program, will be flown by Atlantis. The shuttle on Tuesday night was moved from Kennedy's Vehicle Assembly Building and reached Launch Pad 39A early Wednesday.
The space station will remain in operation through at least 2020. With no replacement for the shuttle, NASA will continue to rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to carry astronauts to and from the space station--- until at least sometime later this decade, when U.S. commercial partners are expected to start providing the crew transportation.
NASA is developing its own spacecraft to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit.
"We've got to grow and adapt and build new things,” Kelly said. “But personally? I would love to fly the space shuttle every week if I could.”
*Updated June 2, 2011.