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.
Morgan had been teacher Christa McAuliffe’s backup for the doomed Challenger flight in 1986. During the mission, Morgan took time to answer questions from students in Idaho, Virginia and Canada.
The main concern for much of the mission was the gouge to Endeavour’s protective tiles. NASA did not want the shuttle to suffer any structural damage that, while not catastrophic, might require lengthy postflight repairs.
Over the past few days and right up until landing, NASA had stressed that the 3½-inch-long 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 2,000-degree 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 miles.
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