Shuttle Endeavour returns to earth

The space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of six landed at Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, early today.

The space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of six landed at Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, early today.

The touchdown ended a 16-day mission which was the penultimate one in the shuttle programme.

Endeavour’s crew put the finishing touches on the International Space Station.

Commander Mark Kelly must wait another day before being reunited with his wife. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is recovering at a rehabilitation centre in Houston after being shot in the head in January.

The last shuttle to fly, Atlantis, was almost at the launch pad when Endeavour returned.

Atlantis emerged from the hangar late yesterday as thousands of space centre workers and their families lined the route to the pad. Atlantis is due to launch in July.

``122 million miles flown during 25 challenging spaceflights,'' Mission Control told Kelly and his crew.

``Your landing ends a vibrant legacy for this amazing vehicle that will long be remembered. Welcome home, Endeavour.''

Kelly replied: “It’s sad to see her land for the last time, but she really has a great legacy.”

He thanked all those who worked on Endeavour over the years.

A considerably bigger crowd gathered a few hours earlier to see Atlantis make its way to the launch pad, the last such trek ever by a shuttle. Thousands of workers and their families lined the route as Atlantis crept out of the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building a little after sunset, bathed in xenon lights.

“The show pretty much tells itself,” Atlantis’s commander, Christopher Ferguson, said as he waved towards his craft. “We’re going to look upon this final mission as a celebration of all that the space shuttle has accomplished over its 30-year life span.”

Bright lights also illuminated the landing strip for Kelly and his crew, who made the 25th night landing out of a total of 134 shuttle flights.

The Endeavour astronauts – all experienced spacemen – departed the 220-mile-high outpost over the weekend, after adding the finishing touches. They installed a $2bn (€1.4bn) cosmic ray detector, an extension beam and a platform full of spare parts – enough to keep the station operating in the shuttle-less decade ahead.

Their flight lasted 16 days and completed Nasa’s role in the space station construction effort which began 12 years ago.

The official tally for Nasa’s youngest shuttle after 25 flights, nearly half of them to the space station: 122.8 million miles, 170 crew members, 299 days in space and 4,672 orbits of Earth.

Ms Giffords was shot in the head during a mass shooting in January, but made a remarkable recovery and was able to watch the launch on May 16. She did not travel to Florida for the landing because of the inconvenient time, her husband said. They will be reunited in Houston tomorrow.

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