The space shuttle Endeavour and its seven astronauts safely returned to Earth on Sunday, taking a detour to sunny California after storms hit the main landing strip in Florida.
Endeavour wrapped up a 16-day trip that left the international space station freshly remodeled and capable of housing bigger crews. The shuttle dropped off home improvement equipment including a new bathroom, kitchenette, exercise machine, two sleeping quarters and a recycling system designed to convert astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water.
But the mission was not without its problems. Astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper let go of a $100,000 tool bag during the first spacewalk, muttering "Oh, great" as it floated away. Endeavour's astronauts also put in extra effort to get the urine processor working. (See: International space station's urine recycler finally repaired)
|Image above: Space shuttle Endeavour and the STS-126 crew land at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. after completing a mission to the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA/Tony Landis |
About seven litres of recycled urine and condensation were coming back aboard Endeavour for extensive testing. No one at the space station will drink the recycled water until the equipment runs for 90 days and ground tests ensure it is safe. More samples will be returned on the next shuttle flight.
The shuttle crew also conducted four spacewalks to clear metal shavings from a solar wing rotary joint at the space station. The joint had been jammed for more than a year and hampered energy production at the orbiting outpost.
On Sunday, NASA ordered the detour to California after dangerously high wind and a stormy sky prevented a Florida landing. Stormy weather at the shuttle's main Florida landing site forced controllers to divert Endeavour and its crew of seven astronauts across the country to Edwards Air Force Base, where it glided to Earth at 4:25 p.m. EST Sunday.
Endeavour had to use a temporary runway at Edwards because the permanent runway is being revamped. The temporary strip is 12,000 feet long and 200 feet wide, about 3,000 feet shorter and 100 feet narrower than the other. The commander said using the temporary runway was "kind of a unique opportunity ... but I think it all worked out in the end very well."
The astronauts also inspected the thermal-tile-coated underside of Endeavour after landing, and Ferguson said the orbiter "seems to have fared entry pretty well."
"Welcome back. That was a great way to finish a fantastic flight," Mission Control radioed.
"And we're happy to be here in California," shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson replied.
The shuttle's California landing delayed reunions between astronauts and their families, who were waiting in Florida. They were expected to reunite Monday afternoon in Houston. The diversion also means a delay in returning Endeavour to its home base. It takes about a week and costs $1.8 million to transport the shuttle from California to Florida atop a modified jumbo jet.