The military crew of the shuttle Atlantis returned to the Johnson Space Center early Wednesday and thanked a cheering crowd of about 200 for their support.

"I can't believe you're all out here at 1 o'clock in the morning," said skipper Robert "Hoot" Gibson. "This is incredible."Gibson said the crew was a "very visible, small representation of the Johnson Space Center and the overall NASA effort. We're the lucky five who got to go have the great experience and get to go have all the fun, which was the culmination of an awful lot of hard work by an awful lot of people and we appreciate them."

JSC Director Aaron Cohen greeted the crew and told the crowd, which included the astronauts' families, that the previous Discovery flight "returned us to safe flight and it was a fantastic mission.

"But Sts-27 (Atlantis) was a superb mission and we needed that mission, also," Cohen said.

All the astronauts spoke briefly but revealed nothing about the mission that sources said put a spy satellite in orbit over the Soviet Union.

Atlantis played to an all-but-empty house when it returned to Earth late Tuesday. Only the news media, base workers and 125 invited guests were on hand, a far cry from the 425,000 that that greeted the shuttle Discovery when it landed in October.

"I think we did a good job for NASA and the space program and I think we did some good things for our country as well," said rookie co-pilot Guy Gardner.

"I wish all of you who would've liked to have gone on that ride could've gone on it," said Richard "Mike" Mullane. "I suspect anyone who comes out here at 1 o'clock in the morning would've liked to have gone on that ride."

Jerry Ross said the flight was "absolutely amazing and exciting, something that if we tried all night we'd never be able to explain the feelings and the sights that we saw.

"I'm looking forward to getting into the office the next day or so and start working to get the next flights going."

William Shepherd, the first member of astronaut class of 1984 to fly aboard the shuttle, said it was a "great mission. It was really right down the pipe, really nominal from what we expected."