|Volume: 05, Issue: 03||09/27/2006|
NASA Welcomes Space Shuttle Crew Back to EarthThe Space Shuttle Atlantis and its crew are home after a 12-day journey of more than 4.9 million miles in space. The mission, STS-115, succeeded in restarting assembly of the International Space Station. The crew delivered and installed the massive P3/P4 truss, an integral part of the station's backbone, and two sets of solar arrays that will eventually provide one quarter of the station's power.
Atlantis' Commander Brent Jett, Pilot Chris Ferguson and mission specialists Joe Tanner, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Dan Burbank, and Steve MacLean, a Canadian astronaut, landed Thursday, September 21, 2006, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at 6:21 a.m. EDT. After landing, Jett told Mission Control at NASA's Johnson Space Center, "Thanks, Houston. It's nice to be back. It was a great team effort, so I think assembly's off to a good start."
The flight was the first in a series of missions that will be among the most complex in space history. Atlantis delivered the first major new component to the station since 2002 and laid the groundwork for upcoming station assembly missions.
STS-115 is one of the most photographed shuttle missions ever, with more than 100 high-definition, digital, video and film cameras documenting the launch and climb to orbit. Data from these images, as well as station and shuttle crew inspection, helped to clear Atlantis' thermal protection system for return only two and a half days after launch.
Tanner, Piper, Burbank, and MacLean, with the help of crewmates, made three spacewalks that completed truss installation, enabled solar arrays to be deployed, and prepared an important radiator for later activation. They also installed a signal processor and transponder that transmits voice and data to the ground and performed other tasks to upgrade and protect the station's systems.
A new procedure called a "camp out" was implemented, in which astronauts slept in the Quest airlock prior to their spacewalks. The process shortens the "prebreathe" time during which nitrogen is purged from the astronauts' systems and air pressure is lowered so the spacewalkers avoid the condition known as the bends. On each of the three spacewalks, the astronauts were able to perform more than the number of scheduled activities.
The astronauts performed unprecedented robotics work. They used the shuttle's arm in a delicate maneuver to hand off the school bus-sized truss to the station's arm. The 45-foot truss weighs 35,000 pounds. The arrays at the end of the truss extended to their full 240-foot wingspan once they unfurled on flight day six. The astronauts also moved the station's robotic arm to a position where it will assist in the next phase of station construction.
After Atlantis undocked from the station, it did the first full fly around of the facility since prior to the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. The maneuver helped ground crews get a better perspective on the stationís environment and overall exterior health.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a call during the mission to astronaut Steve MacLean to congratulate him on being the first Canadian to operate Canadarm2, the station's Canadian-built robotic arm.
After undocking, the Atlantis crew participated in a first-ever three-way call with the Expedition 13 crew aboard the International Space Station and the three crew members of the Soyuz spacecraft on its way to the station. All 12 astronauts in space at that time were able to have a conversation.
With Atlantis and its crew safely home, the stage is set for the next stage of International Space Station assembly. Preparations continue for Space Shuttle Discovery's launch, targeted for mid-December, on the STS-116 mission to deliver an additional truss segment and a cargo module to the station. Discovery will also do extensive work on the station's electrical and cooling systems.
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