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US space shuttle Atlantis returns home

by Staff Writers
Cape Canaveral, Florida (AFP) Feb 20, 2008
The shuttle Atlantis safely landed in Florida Wednesday, completing a successful mission to install Europe's first space laboratory.

Atlantis touched down at the seaside Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, bringing home seven astronauts following a 13-day mission to deliver the Columbus lab to the orbiting International Space Station.

The shuttle's return also cleared the skies for US military plans to shoot down an out-of-control spy satellite before it crashes on Earth.

"We are extremely happy to be home," Atlantis commander Steve Frick commander told mission control.

Before returning to Florida, co-pilot Alan Poindexter fired up two small engines for two minutes and 44 seconds to slow the shuttle to some 250 kilometers per hour from some 27,000 kph, or 25 times the speed of sound.

Atlantis then began an hour-long descent toward Florida, over the Gulf of Mexico and past western Cuba before landing under clear blue skies.

"Atlantis rolling out on runway 15 wrapping up a 5.3 million mile mission to expand the global village of space," said NASA television commentator Rob Navias.

The US military waited for the shuttle to land to safely destroy the satellite over the Pacific ocean, a shoot-down estimated to cost between 40 million and 60 million dollars.

Armed with two specially modified interceptor missiles, the USS Lake Erie cruiser has been tasked to intercept the satellite over the Pacific and shoot it down into the ocean, officials said.

The USS Decatur, a guided missile destroyer, is carrying a third interceptor missile in case the first two attempts fail, defense officials said. Bad weather may delay the shoot-down, officials said.

"There is a very low risk because our orbits are quite different," Atlantis Commander Frick said.

NASA flight director Brian Lunney had said Tuesday, however, that there was no pressure to land the shuttle in a hurry. "I'm not going to land the vehicle until it's safe to do so," he said.

The astronauts also checked the shuttle's heat shield before returning to Earth, an inspection that has been conducted on every mission since a crack on the shuttle Columbus' thermal tiles caused it to disintegrate on re-entry in 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Atlantis brought home American astronaut Daniel Tani, who had spent 120 days in space. He was replaced on the station by French astronaut Leopold Eyharts.

The Atlantis mission gave Europe a major foothold in its space exploration ambitions with the addition of Columbus to the ISS. The two-billion-dollar lab has room for three astronauts.

Japan will be the next major contributor to the ISS when shuttle Endeavour lifts off on March 11 to deliver the the first section of the three-part Kibo laboratory.

NASA wants to conduct 10 more shuttle missions to complete the ISS by 2010, when it plans to retires its three-shuttle fleet.

The US space agency is already working on replacing the shuttle with a new-generation spacecraft with an eye to returning to the moon by 2020 and eventually taking humans to Mars.

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STS-122 Prepares For Landing
Cape Canaveral FL (SPX) Feb 20, 2008
The crew of space shuttle Atlantis is spending today getting ready for their return home and the end of the STS-122 mission. As part of the preparations, the astronauts performed a test earlier today of the steering jets - or thrusters - that will be used to position the orbiter for re-entry.

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