Space shuttle Endeavour wraps up a ‘great adventure’

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of six astronauts touched down safely on Sunday night at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, returning from a bigger and definitely brighter International Space Station.

The astronauts completed a two-week mission that resulted in the virtual completion of the International Space Station and won presidential praise.

“It’s great to be home. It was a great adventure,” said shuttle commander George Zamka after bringing the orbiter to a safe landing on runway 15 at KSC.

Over the course of three spacewalks, Endeavour’s
crew installed the 16-ton Tranquility module and its cupola, big dome
with seven windows, giving the station a room with a view.

With the new components added, the orbiting
laboratory is approximately 90 percent complete by weight and 98
percent complete by volume.

At one point Sunday, flight controllers were
doubtful the weather would cooperate because of clouds and possibly
rain. But in the end threatening showers moved off shore and the cloud
cover broke. It was reminiscent of Endeavour’s launch. The two-week
mission got off to a late start Feb. 8 because of cloudy weather at the launch site.

The mission, one of just five remaining for NASA’s
three shuttles before the program ends later this year after a 29-year
run, came as the US space agency re-evaluates its future.

President Barack Obama called the
astronauts on the station last week to thank them for the job they did.
Under Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, the orbiting research station could
see its life extended by five years until 2020.

The space station, a joint project involving 16 countries, has cost around $100 billion, mostly funded by the United States.

But the same budget effectively abandoned a US plan
to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020. Constrained by soaring
deficits, the Obama White House submitted its 2011 budget to Congress, encouraging NASA
to focus instead on developing commercial transport alternatives to
ferry astronauts to the space station after the shuttle program ends.

NASA has set the next mission to the space station, by shuttle Discovery, for April 5.

(c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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