NASA watching Florida weather as space shuttle Endeavour prepares for midday landing

Published 4:55 pm Tuesday, August 21, 2007

With their work in orbit completed, the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour prepared to land a day early Tuesday because of the threat NASA had once feared Hurricane Dean would pose to Mission Control.

The weather outlook in Cape Canaveral, Fla., was fairly good, although forecasters were keeping an eye on the crosswind.

Endeavour’s first landing path would take the crew over the Pacific Ocean, Central America and Cuba before touching down at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

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If bad weather forces NASA to scrub that landing attempt, the shuttle’s second opportunity would include flying over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which was battered Tuesday morning by Hurricane Dean. If the shuttle crosses above the hurricane, it will be too high to feel its effects, NASA said.

Endeavour’s seven crew members woke early Tuesday to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” a tribute from all of their families.

“That’s very nice of them to think of that,” commander Scott Kelly told Mission Control. “Although it’s been a short two weeks, we’ve accomplished a lot and we still look very much forward to coming home today.”

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.

NASA cleared Endeavour for landing 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 posed no danger to the shuttle or its crew. A week of thermal analyses and tests also indicated that no lengthy postflight repairs should be required, said flight director Steve Stich.

Stich noted, however, that re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere is always risky.

A piece of foam insulation or ice from a bracket on the external fuel tank broke off at liftoff Aug. 8. It fell onto a strut lower on the tank, then bounced into Endeavour and gashed it.

Brackets have shed debris in previous launches, but it wasn’t until Endeavour’s flight that such debris caused noticeable damage.

NASA does not plan to launch another space shuttle until the problem is solved.

During the mission, the astronauts delivered 5,000 pounds of cargo to the space station, attached a new truss segment to the outpost and replaced a gyroscope which helps control the station’s orientation.

The crew completed four spacewalks, two of which were cut short. One was halted after a spacewalking astronaut noticed a cut in his glove. The other was abbreviated to give the crew enough time to prepare for an early departure from the space station.

Teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan spent time answering questions from students in Idaho, Virginia and Canada. Morgan, who was Christa McAuliffe’s backup for the doomed Challenger flight in 1986, is the first teacher to train as a full-fledged astronaut.

The rest of the crew includes pilot Charles Hobaugh and mission specialists Alvin Drew, Tracy Caldwell, Dave Williams and Rick Mastracchio.

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