The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour returned to its Florida home port on Tuesday, touching down safely at the Kennedy Space Center following a hectic but successful 13-day mission to the International Space Station.
Commander Scott Kelly gently steered the 100-tonne spaceship through breezy, blue skies before nosing Endeavour down onto a 3-mile (4.8-km), canal-lined runway at 12:32 p.m. EDT just a short distance from the seaside launch pad where the shuttle's journey began on August 8.
Welcome home. You've given a new meaning to higher education, said astronaut Chris Ferguson at mission control in Houston, a reference to teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan, an Endeavour crew member.
The shuttle made a smooth landing despite a ding in the belly caused when a piece of foam broke off during liftoff.
NASA brought the shuttle home a day earlier than planned when it appeared Hurricane Dean could force an evacuation of the Houston center that operates the shuttle during flight. But the storm took a more southerly course and hit Mexico's Caribbean coast on Tuesday.
The shuttle and its seven-member crew spent nine days at the space station to deliver new components and prepare the $100 billion complex for additional laboratory modules.
Morgan had originally trained as the backup to Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who died in the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986.
The former teacher participated in three educational events, but spent most of her time overseeing the transfer of 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) of cargo to and from the outpost and operating the shuttle's robot arm.
RECOVERY FROM COLUMBIA DISASTER
While mission managers lauded the crew's success in installing the station's new structural beam, replacing a failed steering gyroscope and configuring equipment to pave the way for future additions, the flight put NASA on notice that its $1.5 billion effort to recover from the 2003 Columbia disaster was not finished.
A small piece of insulation fell off Endeavour's tank at launch and smashed into two heat-resistant tiles on the ship's belly, sparking a six-day effort to determine if a risky spacewalk to plug the gash would be needed.
In the end, NASA managers said they were confident the damage would pose no threat to the shuttle. Additional modifications on fuel tanks for the next three flights are under consideration, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.
Fuel tanks earmarked for flights beyond the next three missions already have modifications in work to prevent foam loss from the area that shed insulation during Endeavour's climb to orbit.
NASA made modifications to the fuel tank after the loss of Columbia and its seven astronauts.
A suitcase-sized chunk of foam fell off Columbia's tank and hit the ship's wing, damaging the heat shield. As the shuttle flew through the atmosphere, superheated gases ate into the breach and tore the ship apart.
Hale said he expected the next shuttle flight, which will deliver a connecting hub so modules built by Europe and Japan can be added to the station, will launch close to the targeted October 23 date.
The final flight of the year, a December mission to launch Europe's Columbus module, could face a longer delay because NASA has only one work bay available at the Kennedy center to handle tank modifications.