CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven swooped through the pre-dawn darkness and landed Wednesday, ending a successful mission to outfit the international space station.
"Congratulations on an outstanding job. We are proud of you all," Mission Control told the astronauts.
Powerful xenon lights illuminated the 3-mile-long runway as Atlantis emerged from the gloom like a ghost ship, with a half-moon as a backdrop. Touchdown was right on time, at 3:56 a.m., just as launch was back on Sept. 8.
It was only the 15th nighttime landing in space shuttle history. Nighttime landings are becoming more common, though, now that NASA has a space station in orbit. All three previous shuttle flights to the space station also ended in darkness.
The freshly stocked space station was soaring 240 miles above the Atlantic when Atlantis touched down. It will be visited by shuttle astronauts again in just two weeks; its first full-time residents will move in at the beginning of November.
"We had a great time," commander Terrence Wilcutt said after inspecting his ship. "We're all glad to be back."
Wilcutt and his crew spent eight days at the space station, five of them inside. By the time they left Sunday night, they had hauled in and tucked away 3 tons of equipment.
Among the supplies: shampoo, cream, shaving gel, moist towels and napkins, Russian and American meals, ear plugs, medical kits, labels, printer parts, clamps, brackets, camera equipment and small bags for the first permanent crew to use to relieve themselves in case the toilet jams.
The shuttle astronauts also installed the toilet, oxygen generator and treadmill in the new living quarters, and ran power and TV cables up the outside.
Getting an extra day helped. NASA stretched the mission to 12 days to give the astronauts more time inside.
"They did an amazing job this mission. They made everything look so easy," flight director Jeff Bantle said. "This moved us, I would say, a significant step closer to getting a crew on board this vehicle."
The only disappointment was with one of five new batteries that were plugged into the Russian modules. It would not charge properly and was disconnected; the first residents will deal with the problem when they arrive.
Another crew is scheduled to depart for the space station on Oct. 5 aboard Discovery, making NASA's 100th shuttle flight.
Unlike this mission, most of the work will be outside next time. Four spacewalks are planned to wire up the first piece of station truss, or girder, and a new shuttle docking port, and to install tool boxes and power converters.
NASA plans to use spacesuit parts from this mission on Discovery's flight. Workers hurriedly will remove the spacewalking suits from Atlantis so the emergency oxygen packs can be installed in Discovery's garments, NASA engineer Phil West said.
The regulators in all of NASA's emergency oxygen packs were found in June to be contaminated with potentially flammable oil. The packs in the suits aboard Atlantis were cleaned. NASA does not have enough time to scrub more packs, however, and therefore will reuse at least two of the ones that flew on Atlantis, West said.
Discovery's mission will clear the way for the launch of space station commander Bill Shepherd and his two-cosmonaut crew aboard a Russian rocket on Oct. 30. They will arrive at the orbiting complex two days later and stay four months.
As for Atlantis, it will return to the space station in January, carrying the first lab module named Destiny.
Space station assembly is expected to last until 2006.
"There's a lot of work that has to be done," cautioned NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. "We're only 800,000 pounds more to go to orbit."
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