NASA bids farewell to Endeavour, tees up Atlantis

Space shuttle Endeavour successfully completes final mission, heads to retirement

After 19 years and 25 space flights, NASA's space shuttle Endeavour returned to Earth from a 16-day mission early this morning, ending its storied career.

Endeavour brought its six-man crew safely back from their mission to bring equipment, experiments and supplies to the International Space Station, landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 2:35 a.m. EDT.

Space shuttle Endeavour lands
Space Shuttle Endeavour makes its final landing at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center at 2:35 a.m. Wednesday. (NASA/Reuters)

After traveling 122 million miles, Endeavour's work is done. The space shuttle officially has entered retirement. Only the space shuttle Atlantis is left, and that vehicle is set to fly its final mission on July 8. That mission will close NASA's 30-year space shuttle program. Atlantis was moved onto its launch pad for the final time Tuesday night, just hours before Endeavour came in for its landing.

Endeavour's crew members spent much of the past two weeks doing the final builds on the U.S. segment of the space station. Among their duties, they moved a 50-foot robotic arm that had been used on the space shuttle to a permanent attachment on the station, set up new communication antennas, and a new high-pressure gas tank.

"I think we all should be really impressed how big and magnificent that space station is," said astronaut Mike Fincke, who participated in two of the mission's four spacewalks.

3 space shuttle astronauts
Space shuttle Endeavour mission specialist Greg Chamitoff is helped around the runway by mission specialist Michael Fincke and pilot Gregory Johnson in Cape Canaveral. (Reuters/Pool)

Speaking at a press conference after this morning's landing, Fincke said the whole crew was incredibly happy as they pulled away from the space station "We were impressed. We were excited like 5-year-olds at a roller coaster park," he added.

During the 16-day mission, the astronauts delivered and attached a $2 billion particle detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2 (AMS) and attached it to the backbone of the space station. The 15,251- pound instrument will orbit the Earth, sifting through cosmic particles on the hunt for antimatter and dark matter.

Scientists are hoping it will provide data that will help them better understand the origin of the universe.

Endeavour's final mission also gave the space station a major robotics boost.

Aside from giving the station the shuttle's robotic arm, the crew also ferried up a spare arm for the station's Dextre robot, as well as a robotic arm and hand for the station's humanoid robot.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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