Atlantis prepares return to earth


NASA managers kept close tabs on the weather today as thunderstorms and low clouds threatened to prevent space shuttle Atlantis and its seven astronauts from landing after a trip to the international space station.

The shuttle's first landing opportunity was at 1:55 p.m. today, when forecasts called for thunderstorms within 34 miles and clouds within 8,000 feet of the landing strip at Kennedy Space Center. Attempting to land so close to rain or clouds would violate flight rules.

The next chance would be at 3:30 p.m.

"Tomorrow is the first day of summer, and we know what summer brings to Florida, and that is afternoon thunderstorms," said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.

Atlantis' astronauts took a final step toward landing this morning &

closing the shuttle's payload bay doors, which are opened during flights so that heat doesn't build up in the orbiter.

The shuttle has seven landing opportunities over four days. Mission Control said opportunities at Kennedy, the primary landing site, look slightly more promising on Friday and Saturday.

On Friday, they could also consider using a backup landing site in California. That backup site plus another in New Mexico would be activated Saturday if necessary.

Atlantis has enough power for its systems to orbit until Sunday, but managers want the shuttle to land by Saturday. The flight would only be extended to Sunday if there were technical problems that needed to be fixed.

NASA managers prefer landing at Kennedy since there would be less cost and time in preparing Atlantis for its next mission in December. NASA hopes to fly a total of four missions this year.

"Obviously, we would prefer to stay at the Cape if we can," Shannon said.

Before signing off on the landing, mission managers held an unusual, last-minute meeting Wednesday to clear up three remaining technical issues.

Material known as gap filler appeared to be sticking out of a wing, a thermal blanket had peeled back during the June 8 launch, and debris was found floating after Atlantis undocked from the international space station Tuesday.

Engineers had wanted to make sure the gap filler could withstand the heat and aerodynamics of re-entry and recheck data on the thermal blanket, which was repaired during a spacewalk last week. Mission managers have said the debris may have been ice.

During the crew's 13-day mission to the international space station, the astronauts installed a new truss segment, unfurled a new pair of power-generating solar arrays and activated a rotating joint that allows the new solar arrays to track the sun.

The mission was extended by two days to give astronauts time to repair the thermal blanket.

Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow said he was confident the repair job would hold up.

"Everything looks great," he said Wednesday in an interview with reporters.

The shuttle's visit to the space station was complicated by the crash of Russian computers that control orientation and oxygen production.

But the computers were revived several days later after cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov used a cable to bypass a circuit board. Astronauts conserved the shuttle's power in case they needed to spend an extra day at the station.

Sturckow got a haircut from Yurchikhin before leaving the space station. Astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams said a haircut was one of many things she was looking forward to when she returns to Earth on the shuttle after more than six months at the station.

Williams set the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman.

"I'm looking forward to going to the beach and hopefully taking a walk with my husband and my dog on the beach," she said. "I can't wait for a good piece of pizza."


Associated Press writer Juan Lozano contributed to this report.


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