The Atlantis astronauts glided home to a day-late Mojave Desert landing Thursday, leaving a repaired astronomy satellite behind in orbit and closing out the shuttle program's first decade with a major success.
Banking sharply over the Mojave Desert after a steep plunge through Earth's atmosphere, commander Steven Nagel and co-pilot Kenneth Cameron guided Atlantis to a pinpoint touchdown at 6:55 a.m. PDT on dry lakebed Runway 33 to close out a 92-orbit mission spanning six days and some 2.4 million miles."Wheels stopped, Houston," radioed Nagel as Atlantis rolled to a halt in a 12-knot crosswind.
"Copy, wheels stopped Atlantis," replied astronaut Brian Duffy from mission control in Houston. "Steve, you and your crew did it all and you made it look easy. Congratulations on a great job."
Touchdown came one day late because of dangerous Mojave Desert crosswinds and one day shy of the 10th anniversary of the shuttle Columbia's pioneering April 12, 1981, blastoff on the maiden flight of the world's first reusable spaceplane.
Chalking up one of the most successful flights in the 39 missions to date, Nagel, 44; Cameron, 41; Linda Godwin, 38; and spacewalkers Jerry Ross, 43; and Jay Apt, 41; planned to fly back to their homes in Houston after brief physical exams and reunions with family members.
Left behind in orbit was the $617 million Gamma Ray Observatory, an astronomy satellite launched from Atlantis's payload bay on Sunday after a bold emergency spacewalk repair job by Ross and Apt, the first spacewalk by American astronauts since 1985.
Officials say the giant spacecraft, built to study extremely high-energy radiation from the most violent stars and galaxies in the universe, is in good condition and sailing smoothly through its initial orbital checkout.
Atlantis's re-entry Thursday was in doubt until almost the last minute because of predicted marginal weather at both Edwards and at the Kennedy Space Center.
With five landing opportunities on both coasts, flight controllers waved off the first shot at a Kennedy Space Center touchdown because of fog and possible low clouds, preferring instead to wait one 94-minute orbit to get a better handle on the weather.
As it turned out, the forecast was wrong, and conditions at both sites were acceptable as landing time approached.
Nonetheless, Atlantis was directed to land at Edwards, adding a week to its ground processing and many thousands of dollars to the flight's price tag, despite apparently perfect Florida weather, beefed up brakes and an improved Kennedy Space Center runway.
The astronauts accomplished the primary goal of the 39th shuttle mission Sunday when they launched the Gamma Ray Observatory satellite after a daring emergency spacewalk by Ross and Apt in which Ross shook loose a jammed radio antenna boom.
It was the first spacewalk by U.S. astronauts in more than five years and only the second ever carried out on an emergency basis.