Thu, Aug 23, 2007 - Page 7 News List

NASA plans next mission after safe return of US shuttle


NASA looked cautiously to its next mission due in October after the US shuttle Endeavour returned safely to Earth on Tuesday despite damage to its underside.

"We are still pointing for October, we still have time," the space agency's launch director Mike Leinbach told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after the landing.

"We'll see the time it takes to make the modification," he said, referring to changes needed after a piece of foam broke off Endeavour's external fuel tank on blast-off and struck its belly, leaving a small gash in a heat tile.

NASA officials breathed a sigh of relief at Endeavour's safe landing. The heat tile had held when Endeavour re-entered Earth's atmosphere, undergoing temperatures up to 1,500?C as it jetted home.

"It looked almost like a pristine vehicle," Leinbach said.

"The tile did very well on re-entry," NASA administrator Michael Griffin said.

"Almost everything about this tank is working very well," he added, but warned: "We have to move carefully."

The 13-day mission that ended with Tuesday's faultless landing saw the first teacher in space, lending an element of human warmth after a troubling few months for NASA which has been hit by a series of scandals.

"You have given a new meaning to higher education," joked astronaut Chris Ferguson, as he welcomed back the five-man, two-woman crew including astronaut Barbara Morgan, the first teacher in space.

The Endeavour sailed back to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, amid blue skies, overflying Costa Rica and Cuba before touching down in Florida at 12:32pm, using a parachute to help it slow down.

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