The Future of the Space Shuttle Endeavour

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The space shuttle landed safely in Florida on Tuesday, after engineers determined that it would not be necessary to repair a gouge on the shuttle's exterior before re-entry. Nell Greenfieldboyce describes the landing, and explains what the future has in store for the damaged shuttle.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, reporter, NPR science desk

Space Shuttle Endeavour Lands in Florida

This image provided by NASA shows the Space Shuttle Endeavour. i i

This image provided by NASA shows the Space Shuttle Endeavour as the crew puts the spacecraft through an Aug. 10 maneuver that allowed the International Space Station crew to document the condition of the thermal protection system. NASA/AP hide caption

itoggle caption NASA/AP
This image provided by NASA shows the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

This image provided by NASA shows the Space Shuttle Endeavour as the crew puts the spacecraft through an Aug. 10 maneuver that allowed the International Space Station crew to document the condition of the thermal protection system.

NASA/AP
This image from NASA shows the shuttle crew posing for an in-space portrait on Aug. 17. i i

This image from NASA shows the shuttle crew posing for an in-space portrait Aug. 17. Front row (from left), astronauts Alvin Drew and Barbara R. Morgan, both mission specialists, along with astronaut Scott Kelly, commander. Back row (from left), astronauts Charlie Hobaugh, pilot, along with astronauts Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio and the Canadian Space Agency's Dave Williams, all mission specialists. NASA/AP hide caption

itoggle caption NASA/AP
This image from NASA shows the shuttle crew posing for an in-space portrait on Aug. 17.

This image from NASA shows the shuttle crew posing for an in-space portrait Aug. 17. Front row (from left), astronauts Alvin Drew and Barbara R. Morgan, both mission specialists, along with astronaut Scott Kelly, commander. Back row (from left), astronauts Charlie Hobaugh, pilot, along with astronauts Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio and the Canadian Space Agency's Dave Williams, all mission specialists.

NASA/AP
Space shuttle Endeavour touches down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. i i

Space shuttle Endeavour touches down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. hide caption

itoggle caption
Space shuttle Endeavour touches down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Space shuttle Endeavour touches down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The shuttle Endeavour landed safely Tuesday in Florida, despite concerns over a gouge in its protective tiles.

The space shuttle swooped out of the partly cloudy sky and touched down on the runway at 12:32 p.m., as the crew's family members cheered.

"Congratulations. Welcome home. You've given a new meaning to higher education," Mission Control told commander Scott Kelly and his crew, which included teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan.

NASA officials decided over the weekend to end the shuttle's mission a day early because of concern about Hurricane Dean's impact on Mission Control in Houston. Although Houston was later determined to be out of the storm's path, NASA officials decided to continue with plans for the Tuesday landing.

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

NASA cleared Endeavour for landing after engineers evaluated 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.

After a week of thermal analyses and tests, NASA engineers also indicated that no lengthy postflight repairs should be required to fix the gouge in the shuttle, 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 during the Aug. 8 liftoff. It hit a strut lower on the tank, then bounced into Endeavour and gashed it.

Brackets have shed debris in previous launches, but it was not 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 that 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.

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.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press