Shuttle Endeavor Lands Safely

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(CBS/AP) Space shuttle Endeavour returned to Earth on Tuesday, ending a nearly two-week orbital drama that centered on a deep gouge in the shuttle's belly and an early homecoming prompted by Hurricane Dean.

The space shuttle swooped out of the partly cloudy sky and touched down on the runway at 12:32 p.m.

"Congratulations. Welcome home. You've given a new meaning to higher education," Mission Control told commander Scott Kelly and his crew, which included teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan.

The main concern for much of the mission was the gouge to Endeavour's protective tiles. NASA did not want the shuttle to suffer any structural damage that, while not catastrophic, might require lengthy postflight repairs.

Over the past few days and right up until landing, NASA had stressed that the 3½-inch-long gouge in Endeavour's belly would not endanger the shuttle during its landing. In 2003, a damaged wing on shuttle Columbia had allowed hot gases to seep in during the re-entry, tearing the shuttle apart.

There was zero chance of a Columbia-style catastrophe this time, NASA managers insisted, although they acknowledged re-entry was always risky.

The damaged area on Endeavour was subjected to 2,000-degree temperatures during the hottest part of atmospheric re-entry, but engineers were convinced after a week of thermal analyses and tests that the spacecraft would hold up.

Repairing the damage involved a lot of unknowns. "They've never done anything like that," reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood. "The risk was greater than simply returning as is."

With its pilots reporting no problems, Endeavour zoomed over the South Pacific, crossed Central America and Cuba, then headed up the Florida peninsula into Kennedy Space Center. Its trip spanned 13 days and 5.3 million miles.

The main concern for much of the mission was the gouge to Endeavour's protective tiles. NASA did not want the shuttle to suffer any structural damage that, while not catastrophic, might require lengthy postflight repairs.

"Hopefully, we'll have acceptable weather and it will be a really good day," commander Scott Kelly radioed from orbit earlier Tuesday. "I've got a good feeling," Mission Control replied.

Mission managers gave Kelly the go-ahead after engineers finished evaluating the latest laser images of the shuttle's wings and nose and concluded there were no holes or cracks from micrometeorites or space junk. The astronauts inspected the especially vulnerable areas Sunday, after undocking from the international space station.

NASA reiterated Monday that the unrepaired gouge in Endeavour's belly would pose no danger to the shuttle or its seven astronauts during the hour-long descent. A week of thermal analyses and tests also indicated that no lengthy post flight repairs would be required either, said flight director Steve Stich.

Stich noted, however, that re-entering the Earth's atmosphere is always risky, just like a launch, and he will not relax until the shuttle is on the runway and the astronauts are safely out.

A piece of foam insulation or ice from a bracket on the external fuel tank broke off at liftoff Aug. 8, fell onto a strut lower on the tank, then bounced into Endeavour and gashed it. The same brackets have shed debris in previous launches, but it wasn't until Endeavour's flight that it caused noticeable damage.

NASA does not plan to launch another space shuttle until the problem is solved. Engineers met Monday to discuss possible remedies. A permanent solution, replacing the aluminum alloy brackets with titanium ones requiring less insulating foam, won't be ready until spring. That leaves three missions at risk, including the next one, currently set for October.

Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said at the least, the amount of foam probably will be reduced on the tank brackets before the next flight. NASA didn't modify the brackets sooner because engineers thought the risk was "rather low" that a piece of foam or ice from that area might break off and do serious harm to the shuttle.

NASA thought any debris from the bracket would shatter when striking the lower strut on the tank; they didn't anticipate it might remain intact and slam into the shuttle as it did during Endeavour's launch. Hale called it an "unlucky bounce."

"We didn't think that could happen before," Hale said. "Clearly, we're smarter now."

Endeavour's two-week mission wasn't supposed to end until Wednesday, but over the weekend mission managers decided to cut its space station visit short. At the time, it was uncertain whether Hurricane Dean might threaten Houston, home to Mission Control.

The forecast Monday afternoon had Houston out of harm's way. But with the shuttle astronauts already packed up, NASA held to a Tuesday landing.

During a question-and-answer session with Canadian children, Kelly explained that the hurricane wasn't affecting landing preparations in orbit. "Even though we undocked a day early," he said, "we might not have to get home on Tuesday as urgently as we did before."

Teacher-astronaut Morgan took part in the education session, along with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams, who performed three spacewalks to install new space station parts.

Morgan - who was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 Challenger disaster - left two mini-greenhouses at the space station. Station resident Clay Anderson will grow basil seeds in them; youngsters will do the same on Earth using the 10 million basil seeds that Morgan carried into space.

"I'm hoping to keep these bad boys (the seeds) going for quite a while if I can," Anderson told Mission Control.

He jokingly added: "Tell Miss Morgan that I'm going to write 100 times on the side of the water delivery system, 'I will not pull the plugs too quickly, I will not pull the plugs too quickly.' "

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