It may have gotten off to a rocky start, but the space shuttle Endeavour's sixteen days in orbit came to a flawless end Friday when the craft glided through overcast skies to a perfect landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
"It's a great day to be here at (Kennedy)," said commander Mark Polansky, as he and his six crewmates departed the runway after descending more than 100,000 feet at speeds greater than 1,000 MPH through the Earth's atmosphere.
Endeavour's wheels touched the tarmac at Kennedy at 10:48 a.m. EDT, according to NASA. The smooth landing belied a mission that seemed doomed never to leave the ground. STS-127 launched on July 15, but only after days of delays caused by mechanical and weather problems.
There were glitches in space as well.
On a lighter note, the astronauts were forced to share facilities with the crew of the International Space Station after one of the ISS's pricey, hi-tech toilets malfunctioned.
More seriously, NASA ground controllers were concerned that launch debris might have damaged pieces of Endeavour's heat resistant tiling, which allows the craft to endure extreme temperatures on reentry to the atmosphere. Pieces of foam insulation from the external fuel tank damaged heat shields on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. The vehicle disintegrated upon reentry, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
To check Endeavour's tiling, Polansky flew the craft over the ISS so personnel on the space station could visually check the material using digital imaging devices. On Thursday, a thruster that controls Endeavour's reentry speed and attitude failed during a test burn. The astronauts were able to work around the problem.
Through it all, the STS-127 crew accomplished some important tasks.
A pair of astronauts on Monday worked their way through a five hour spacewalk around the ISS. The jaunt saw them complete a range of key maintenance and research jobs outside the station. The crew also helped complete construction of Japan's Kibo space laboratory. The astronauts added a porch-like platform to the lab's exterior that will allow experiments to be exposed to the vacuum of outer space.
NASA is expected to phase out the space shuttle program starting next year. Plans call for the development of an Apollo-style rocket and capsule system, dubbed Ares and Orion, to replace the orbiter. Obama administration officials, however, have recently raised questions about the plan's cost and practicality.
The next shuttle launch is set for Aug. 25, when mission STS-128 is scheduled to liftoff from Kennedy.
For Further Reading
InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on leading-edge government IT -- and how the technology involved may end up inside your business. Download the report here (registration required).