The space shuttle Atlantis returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida before dawn Thursday, bringing a successful end to a mission that resumed the long-delayed construction of the International Space Station.
After a mission whose beginning, and ending, was plagued with a number of delays, the space shuttle Atlantis fired its engines early Thursday morning to leave orbit and return to Earth.
From their vantage point several hundred kilometers above, the crew members of the International Space Station watched as Atlantis re-entered Earth's atmosphere and streaked over the Gulf of Mexico, and radioed their impressions back to ground controllers.
"Spectacular lightning flashes directly below the orbiter, there, just spectacular," crewmembers said. "That's really, cool, guys. The glow of the orbiter itself getting dimmer, but the contrail's still very bright."
Just moments later, Atlantis safely touched down at its landing site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"Touchdown. Drag chute deployed. Nose gear touchdown. Wheels stop, Houston. We copy, wheels stop, congratulations on return to assembly."
The landing ended a successful 12-day mission that resumed the long-delayed construction on the International Space Station. Atlantis was originally scheduled to blast off from Florida in late-August, but the launch was postponed a number of times because of bad weather and equipment problems.
It was scheduled to return to Earth on Wednesday, but debris found floating outside the vehicle, as well as inclement weather over Florida, prompted officials with the U.S. space agency NASA to keep it in orbit for an extra day. The crew spent the extra day inspecting the vehicle looking for any damage.
During the mission to the space station, the astronauts conducted three complex spacewalks to attach a giant array of solar panels that will boost the station's power.
Construction on the space station has been delayed since 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere. The crew of space shuttle Atlantis had been training for this flight when the Columbia disaster occurred, and had to wait while NASA redesigned the shuttle's external fuel tank, and implemented several new in-flight safety procedures.
Atlantis commander Brent Jett says the long wait was just as challenging as the actual flight itself.
"This crew is a great group of folks, but you can't stay in training for four years, and train at a very high level," said Brent Jett. "So, I think that it was probably more of a challenge during the four years to prepare, bring the crew to a peak at the correct time for launch, and, I mean it all worked out."
Michael Griffin, administrator of NASA, says the mission of Atlantis shows the agency is moving forward.
"You've seen a great effort on NASA's part by a truly great team of people," said Michael Griffin. "I think it is obvious to me and I hope it's obvious to you that we are rebuilding the kind of momentum that we have had in the past and that we need if we are gonna finish the space station. Because we have an awesome task ahead of us."
The next construction mission to the International Space Station is scheduled for December. On that flight, the space shuttle Discovery will deliver another giant truss for the orbital outpost, as well as a scientific laboratory. It will be the 20th time a shuttle has flown to the space station.