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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  

February 23, 2000
Web posted at: 12:14 PM EST (1714 GMT)

In this story:

Shuttle weathers an anxious landing

Troublesome latches, faulty thruster


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.

VideoWatch 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 landings.

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 jewels."

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 Wednesday.

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.

Shuttle crew conserves fuel, fixes data glitch
February 18, 2000
NASA may extend shuttle mapping mission
February 18, 2000
Astronauts close to saving enough fuel for full mapping
February 17, 2000
NASA: Shuttle may be able to complete mission
February 16, 2000
Halfway point may be critical for fuel-starved shuttle
February 15, 2000
NASA monitors shuttle fuel consumption after thruster fails
February 14, 2000
Endeavour ready to launch for monster mapping mission
February 11, 2000

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