The US space shuttle Atlantis landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday after the first construction mission to the International Space Station (ISS) since the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Atlantis and its crew of six touched down before dawn following a 12-day mission that saw astronauts complete three spacewalks and install a new solar power module on the half-built, US$100-billion orbiting outpost.
Astronauts fired the spaceship's braking rockets while the shuttle flew upside down over the Indian Ocean and Atlantis made its fiery reentry.
Its long glide took the shuttle over the south Pacific Ocean, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Florida's southwest coast and ended with a smooth landing on the 4.8km-long runway at the space center on the state's east coast.
The landing was delayed a day after some unidentified objects were spotted flying just outside the shuttle. The crew performed hours of unscheduled inspections on Wednesday to make sure the spaceship had not been damaged.
NASA managers cleared the ship to return home after the inspections turned up no signs of damage to the orbiter's protective heat shield or other critical systems.
"We are cleared for entry -- nothing was found missing or damaged on the thermal protection system, the heat shield of the Space Shuttle Atlantis," shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told a news conference.
The US space agency implemented extensive in-space inspections after shuttle Columbia was destroyed in 2003 in an accident that was blamed on debris that hit the spaceship during launch.
The damage had gone undetected and the shuttle disintegrated over Texas as it reentered the atmosphere.
Atlantis' mission restarted construction on the space station, which was suspended after the Columbia accident.
It was the first of at least 15 flights that scientists say will be needed to complete the space station by 2010, at which point the shuttles are scheduled to be retired.
The discovery on Tuesday of a small, unidentified object orbiting along with Atlantis had prompted NASA to delay the scheduled return on Wednesday by 24 hours to allow for an inspection.
Hale said the mystery object was probably just a piece of plastic that had been used to adjust the thermal tiles during their installation on the orbiter's underbelly.
Meanwhile, the first ever female space tourist -- Anousheh Ansari of the US -- settled into the ISS on Wednesday for a multi-million dollar cosmic holiday.
Ansari, whose Soyuz spacecraft safely docked with the ISS after completing its journey from Earth, will spend the next eight days on board in the company of five professional astronauts.
Ground control at Korolev, outside Moscow, showed live footage of Ansari and two astronauts who travelled with her entering the station and embracing the current occupants.
Ansari, wearing a black baseball cap and a yellow shirt, smiled broadly as she entered the station.
On Earth, space officials and Ansari's relatives applauded the news.
An Iranian-born US citizen and telecommunications tycoon, Ansari is the world's fourth space tourist.
She accompanied NASA's Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russia's Mikhail Tyurin to the ISS and is believed to have paid some US$25 million for her trip.
The three blasted off on Monday from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Ansari's arrival follows a number of technical glitches on the ISS, including a possible chemical leak on Monday, in which the three occupants were forced to put on surgical masks and gloves due to a bad odor.
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