Space Shuttle Atlantis Prepares for Return to Earth After Successful Mission to Space Station

In a routine familiar to travelers on Earth, shuttle astronauts spent Tuesday packing, indulging in their surroundings and making sure their vehicle is ready for the ride home.

In preparation for Wednesday's scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center after 11 days in space, the Atlantis crew checked flight controls - similar to those on an airplane - and test fired small jets that are used to guide the shuttle. The commander and pilot used simulations to practice their landing skills.

They also participated in a rare conference call with two other spacecraft also currently in orbit.

"It's a little crowded in the sky this morning," said Jeff Williams, a resident of the international space station the shuttle undocked from on Sunday after delivering and installing a solar panel addition.

"We were wondering if we had to hire some more air traffic controllers for the increased traffic up here," responded Michael Lopez-Alegria from the Russian Soyuz capsule that launched from Kazakhstan on Monday. He's part of the team that will be taking over from Williams' crew.

During the 10-minute conversation, while the space station and shuttle hovered over Australia and the capsule over the Black Sea, the astronauts reminisced about their time together, the times to come and the latest drama in the cosmos.

The three space station astronauts pulled an alarm and donned protective gear after an Elektron oxygen generator overheated Monday, spreading smoke and a burned-rubber smell and leaking potassium hydroxide, an irritant that is used to power batteries. NASA said the leak was not life-threatening, and the crew cleaned up the spill.

"We're sorry you guys had to go through that but, yeah, we're kind of glad we weren't there and we want you all to know that we didn't touch the Elektron," Atlantis commander Brent Jett joked to Williams.

Twelve astronauts in space at once isn't a record, said NASA spokesman Pat Ryan. The cosmos have hosted 13 astronauts at once three times, most recently in 2001, Ryan said. Still, he added, it is very infrequent that three different spacecraft are concurrently in space.

During their mission, the Atlantis astronauts officially resumed construction of the international space station after a four-year hiatus. The 115-foot-long (34.5-meter) solar wings they added will generate power for the space station once it is rewired during the next mission, slated to launch in December.

Progress on the orbiting lab halted after the Columbia disaster in 2003, when the space shuttle disintegrated while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Since then, NASA has implemented several safety procedures, including Monday's inspection of the shuttle using a robotic arm with a TV camera and laser imagery system attached on the end. Preliminary results from the inspection look very good, Tony Antonelli from Mission Control in Houston told the astronauts.

NASA studies the images for any damage that might jeopardize the shuttle's re-entry, scheduled for Wednesday at 5:59 a.m. EDT (0959 GMT). A storm front moving through Florida may delay landing until 7:34 a.m (1134 GMT).

NASA also has several backup times on Thursday and Friday at the Kennedy Space Center - the preferred destination - as well as at Edwards Air Force Base in California and White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

Asked by a television reporter in his hometown of Philadelphia if he had any messages for his family, pilot Chris Ferguson said: "Keep your fingers crossed that the weather's nice tomorrow."

Atlantis woke up Tuesday to a recording of Celine Dion's "Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi" (Don't Leave Without Me), dedicated to Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean.

"You guys are probably sad to be heading home but it'll be nice to have a cold beer and a shower," Lopez-Alegria said, laughing.

"It's been real short for us," Jett replied. "It's kind of funny, you guys are just starting a really long journey in space and our really short one is quickly coming to an end, much sooner than we'd like."


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