Endeavour returns after record-setting mission

Space shuttle Endeavour and its crew are home after carrying Japan’s maiden space laboratory and a Canadian repair robot to the International Space Station (ISS) on a record-setting mission.

Endeavour landed at the Kennedy Space Centre at 12.39am GMT after a 16-day mission that included a record 12-day docking at the ISS and five spacewalks—the most ever embarked upon in a single mission.

The shuttle and its seven astronauts touched down 90 minutes later than scheduled after an initial landing was postponed due to poor weather.

It was the second night-time landing since September 2006 and the 29th since the first shuttle launch in 1981.

“Welcome Endeavour,” Nasa’s Jim Dutton at mission control told the shuttle crew as they glided to a stop.

Okairinasai Takao. Bienvenue Leo,” Dutton said in Japanese and French, welcoming back to Earth Japanese astronaut Takao Doi and the European Space Agency’s French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, back from a 50-day stint on the ISS.

“Congratulations to the team for the mission,” Dutton said, as Endeavour‘s complex mission, launched on March 11, went ahead practically without a hitch.

Its main task was to install the first part of the Japanese Kibo lab, a micro-gravity research facility that will be the station’s largest module when completed in March 2009.

With its installation, Japan gains a foothold on the ISS alongside the United States, Russia and Europe, whose laboratory Columbus was delivered to the station in February.

“We are quite honoured that Mr Doi contributed to the construction of the space station,” Kaoru Mamiya, vice-president of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, said after Endeavour landed.

“It’s the first step for our Kibo construction, and we hope that next time, the main module will be added to the station.”

Kibo will be the largest by far of the four research modules on board the station and represents the most important Japanese input to the project, to which Japan has contributed a total of $10-billion.

Nasa managers said the shuttle crew was in excellent shape and elated over the success of their mission.

“They were glad to be home, very proud of the work they did, and we’re very proud of the work they did, too,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach.

On Sunday, in the mission’s final spacewalk, specialists Robert Behnken and Mike Foreman attached a 50-foot sensory boom to the outside of the space station.

ISS flight director Dana Weigel said the spacewalk, often referred to by Nasa officials as an EVA, or an extra-vehicular activity, had set a new record.

“This was five EVAs ... more than we’ve done on any station mission,” he said.

The spacewalkers also successfully installed an experiment on the outside of the European Space Agency’s laboratory, which the astronauts had failed to complete during the third spacewalk on March 17.

Astronauts also tested new repair techniques for the shuttle’s heat shield.
Nasa has been testing different in-space repair techniques on the shuttle’s protective layer since a crack in Columbia‘s heat shield caused it to explode while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, killing its seven-member crew.

Astronauts also assembled the Canadian-made Dextre robot, which is designed to undertake maintenance operations on the space station that until now required a human touch, and reduce the need for risky spacewalks.

The robot’s human-like upper torso swivels at the waist, and its arms were designed with seven joints to provide it with maximum versatility. Umbilical connectors provide power and data connectivity.—AFP