Astronauts give mapping mission an 'A plus'
Shuttle Endeavour crew members along with supporting personnel look over the orbiter after landing at Kennedy Space Center
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- Space shuttle
commander Kevin Kregel on Wednesday declared the Endeavour's mapping mission a success, noting that the crew had radar scanned
most of the Earth's surface while overcoming several harrowing
predicaments in space.
The six-member crew concluded an 11-day journey with
a perfect landing on Tuesday. Their prize: digital tapes with
data to render three-dimensional maps of Earth with unprecedented completeness and accuracy.
|Watch the shuttle as it touches down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.|
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The crew mapped almost 80 percent of the Earth's landforms at
least twice, only slightly less than NASA's target, despite
troubles with storage latches and a defective thruster that
threatened to impair the mission.
The Endeavour mission should receive an "A plus in anyone's
report card," Kregel told reporters on Wednesday, adding that
Endeavour's radar covered "99.98 percent" of the planned
mapping area at least once.
Shuttle weathers an anxious landing
Endeavour touched down at sunset the day before at Kennedy
Space Center in Florida, despite crosswinds slightly higher
than 17 mph (27 km/h), right at the safety limit for shuttle
The shuttle's fiery re-entry took it across Canada and the
central and southern regions of the United States. Its
brightly lit plasma trail was visible much of the way.
Endeavour touches down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida
The strong crosswinds prevented the shuttle from landing at
Kennedy Space Center during a first opportunity in the
afternoon. But within hours, conditions cleared up sufficiently.
The poor weather prediction had prompted NASA to prepare a
backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California,
where no shuttle has touched down since 1996.
Endeavour astronauts ended their Earth-mapping work on
Monday. Using sophisticated radar equipment aboard the
orbiter and at the end of a 20-story radar mast, they mapped
some 46 million square miles (119 million square km) of the
planet's land formations.
The 330 digital cassettes Endeavour brought home carry enough radar
imagery to fill more than 20,000 compact disks, according to NASA.
Scientists will spend one to two years turning them into detailed and comprehensive three-dimensional Earth maps.
Mission specialist Janice Voss told reporters Wednesday that
NASA technicians were busy copying the cassettes, which
project scientist Michael Kobrick called NASA's "crown
Troublesome latches, faulty thruster
Perspective view of the area around Pasadena, California, just north of Los Angeles. The San Gabriel Mountains are seen across the top of the image. This image was created in part with data gathered by Shuttle Radar Topography Mission
The multinational crew overcame two equipment problems while
on orbit. On Monday, they spent two tense hours trying to
fasten latches inside the canister that stores the radar mast
after it retracts.
NASA controllers directed the Endeavour astronauts to use
heaters to loosen the latches. The crew was so confident in
NASA's instructions that they took pictures of Earth with
their cameras while waiting for the heaters to work. On their
fourth try, they secured the $35 million mast structure.
The astronauts were "quite relaxed with the fix they (mission
controllers) were proposing," said shuttle pilot Dom Gorie on
Last week, a stabilizing thruster at the mast's end
malfunctioned and forced shuttle managers to tweak the fuel
outlay so the mapping could continue.
The thruster trouble caused Endeavour to fall a bit short of
the goal of mapping 80 percent of the Earth's landforms.
The problem had threatened to cut short the mapping mission
by as much as a day. But mission controllers devised fuel
saving measures that instead allowed the astronauts to map
for an additional nine hours.
"There was no doubt in my mind that they would come up with
creative solutions," Kregel said Wednesday.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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