Though winds were brisk and at the upper limits of NASA flight rules, skies were clear and NASA managers gave shuttle skipper James Wetherbee a green light to fire Endeavour's braking rockets and leave orbit after 14 days in space.
The shuttle sailed around the world one last time, in an hour-long glide that ended at 2:37 p.m. ET with a touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center's three-mile long, canal-lined runway.
"It's great to be here," Wetherbee radioed to flight controllers minutes after touchdown.
NASA had planned to bring Endeavour back to Earth on Saturday, no matter what. With only one more day's supply of canisters to remove carbon dioxide from the crew cabin air, NASA ordered the shuttle's backup landing site in California staffed in case of a fourth day of poor weather in Florida. In 21 years and 112 shuttle missions, NASA had never before had to postpone a shuttle landing more than two days.
While astronauts typically treasure bonus days in space, three people aboard the spaceship may not have been as grateful for the gift. Peggy Whitson, Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev, the fifth resident crew to live aboard the space station, were aboard the shuttle for a ride home after six months in space.
"Welcome home after your half-year off the planet," astronaut Duane Carey from Mission Control radioed to the station crew upon landing.
The trio rode back to Earth strapped into reclined seats in the shuttle's middeck, with one of the shuttle astronauts, Michael Lopez-Alegria, joining them in an upright seat to assist if the long-duration fliers needed any immediate help upon landing.
A team of doctors and scientists were stationed at the space center to examine the crew and administer several tests that will help researchers gauge the effects of weightlessness on the human body.
Whitson, for one, said she wanted to walk off the shuttle -- or at least try to -- rather than be carried out in stretcher.
"Our station crew members have been coming back in better shape than the folks who came back from Mir and I think a lot of it has to do with the exercise training program that we're working on now," Whitson said during an inflight press conference. "If I can, I want to walk off."
Whitson and Treschev were rookie fliers when they were launched into space on June 5 and have never before experienced the effects of Earth's gravity after time in orbit. Korzun previously flew a mission aboard the Russian Mir space station.
With Endeavour back on Earth, NASA will turn its attention to the long-delayed research mission of shuttle Columbia, featuring the flight of the first Israeli astronaut. Blastoff is targeted for Jan. 16.
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