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Atlantis back home after 11-day voyage

By IRENE BROWN, UPI Science News

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Sailing on light winds through clear skies, shuttle Atlantis returned to its Florida home port on Friday, ending a successful 11-day journey in space.

The crew dropped out of orbit when commander Jeffrey Ashby fired the spaceship's twin braking rockets, beginning an hourlong glide to Earth.

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Coming from the southwest, Atlantis passed over Cuba at 8,000 miles per hour, then crossed the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall near Tampa, Fla. As the shuttle neared the Kennedy Space Center, Ashby steered the ship through looping circles to slow the craft before gently setting upon the runway at 11:44 a.m.

Most of the shuttle's time in space was spent at the International Space Station, where astronaut Peggy Whitson and cosmonauts Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev are in the last month of a planned 5 1/2-month assignment.

The shuttle crew delivered and installed a 45-foot, 14-ton exterior support beam to the Destiny science laboratory and delivered food, supplies and science gear for the station crew.

A virtual repeat of Atlantis' mission is scheduled to be flown next month aboard shuttle Endeavour, which will carry a matching truss for the station's port side.

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NASA is targeting Endeavour's launch for Nov. 10, but might delay the flight pending the outcome of an investigation in Russia into a failed Soyuz rocket launch, which killed one person on the ground. A similar Soyuz rocket carrying a three-member crew had been targeted to launch to the space station on Oct. 28, with the crew departing three days before Endeavour's launch. The purpose of that flight is to replace the station's emergency escape ship.

NASA and the Russians coordinate schedules to avoid overlapping operations that would tax the station crew, ground support teams and facilities.

"If the Soyuz does end up slipping, depending on how far out it goes, we may be delaying (Endeavour)," said NASA's shuttle integration manager, Linda Ham.

NASA expects to hear Tuesday the preliminary results of the cause of the accident and any effects it would have on future Soyuz operations.

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