(photo credit: AP)
Space shuttle Endeavour returned to Earth on Tuesday, ending a nearly two-week orbital drama that centered on a deep gouge in the shuttle's belly and an early homecoming prompted by a hurricane.
The space shuttle swooped out of the partly cloudy sky and touched down on the runway at 12:32 p.m.
"Congratulations. Welcome home. You've given a new meaning to higher education," Mission Control told commander Scott Kelly and his crew, which included teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan.
The main concern for much of the mission was the gouge to Endeavour's protective tiles caused by falling debris during liftoff.
NASA officials quickly gathered under Endeavour, still parked on the runway, gazing up at the gouged tiles. Cameras focused on the damage, offering detailed close-up views.
"On first glance here, there doesn't appear to be much damage from the heat of re-entry there," said NASA spokesman George Diller.
Six of the seven astronauts climbed out and inspected their ship, but Morgan did not emerge from the crew-transport vehicle. NASA offered no immediate explanation, noting that anything regarding the astronauts' health was private information.
Over the past few days and right up until landing, NASA had stressed that the 3 1/2-inch-long 3.5 gouge in Endeavour's belly would not endanger the shuttle during its landing. In 2003, a damaged wing on shuttle Columbia had allowed hot gases to seep in during the re-entry, tearing the shuttle apart.
There was zero chance of a Columbia-style catastrophe this time, NASA managers insisted, although they acknowledged re-entry was always risky.
The damaged area on Endeavour was subjected to high temperatures during the hottest part of atmospheric re-entry, but engineers were convinced after a week of thermal analyses and tests that the spacecraft would hold up.
With its pilots reporting no problems, Endeavour zoomed over the South Pacific, crossed Central America and Cuba, then headed up the Florida peninsula into Kennedy Space Center. Its trip spanned 13 days and 5.3 million.
The shuttle was not supposed to return until Wednesday, but over the weekend, mission managers decided to cut its space station visit short because of Hurricane Dean. At the time, NASA was uncertain if Dean would veer toward Texas and threaten Houston, home to Mission Control. Even though forecasters later put Houston out of harm's way, NASA held to a Tuesday landing.
A half-hour after landing, Mission Control jokingly asked commander Scott Kelly if he wanted to turn the shuttle around and "set up for another quick one."
"Give us the weekend off and maybe next Monday," Kelly replied.
During Endeavour's liftoff on Aug. 8, a piece of foam insulation or ice had broken off a bracket on the external fuel tank, fell onto a strut lower on the tank and then bounced into the shuttle, gashing its tiles.
The astronauts inspected the especially vulnerable areas Sunday, after undocking from the international space station. NASA on Monday cleared Endeavour for landing after engineers finished evaluating the latest laser images of the shuttle's wings and nose and concluded there were no holes or cracks from micrometeorites or space junk.
Brackets have shed debris in launches since Columbia, but it was not until Endeavour's flight that such debris caused noticeable damage again. The damage triggered a weeklong analyses that involved hundreds of engineers and thousands of hours of supercomputer simulations.
NASA does not plan to launch another space shuttle until the problem is solved. For now, Discovery is supposed to lift off in late October.
While in orbit, the astronauts attached a new truss segment to the space station and replaced a failed gyroscope needed for keeping the outpost headed in the right direction. They also delivered 5,000 pounds of supplies.
The crew completed four spacewalks, two of which were cut short. One was halted after a spacewalking astronaut noticed a cut in his glove. The other was abbreviated to give the crew enough time to prepare for an early departure from the space station.
The rest of the crew included pilot Charles Hobaugh and mission specialists Alvin Drew, Tracy Caldwell, Dave Williams and Rick Mastracchio.