Shuttle lands after $1 billion station upgrade
(CNN) -- The space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth on Friday, following an 11-day mission during which the crew constructed the first railroad in space.
The shuttle touched down under clear skies at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida shortly before 12:30 p.m. EDT.
Atlantis astronauts installed nearly $1 billion in new components to the international space station, including a $600 million metal beam that will serve as the backbone for future research and expansion on the modular complex.
The 13.5-ton truss is replete with electrical wires, cables and computers. And shuttle spacewalkers affixed a short track and railcar on top of the 44-foot (13-meter) structure.
The $190 million unmanned railcar performed sporadically during a preliminary test, but NASA engineers expressed confidence that it would do much better in the future with minor adjustments.
Eventually, more segments will extend the track the length of a football field, allowing the station's robotic crane to move massive pieces of equipment from one end of the modular outpost to the other.
Shuttle astronauts conducted four spacewalks during their weeklong station visit. Jerry Ross ventured outside for the ninth time in his career, a NASA record.
The veteran astronaut and grandfather set another space milestone as well. The trip marked the seventh time he had launched from Earth, more than any other astronaut or cosmonaut.
Will he try to break his record or step aside to give greener NASA astronauts a chance to practice their space wings?
"I'll leave that to management to decide," he quipped in an interview Thursday with CNN.
Steve Smith, another spacewalker on the Atlantis mission, offered an emotional description of his view of the home planet.
"It really changes your life to see Earth from space," he told CNN. "It looks very fragile, very beautiful. You become much more of an environmentalist when you come back."
The shuttle astronauts, who left the space station Wednesday, were the first visitors to the orbiting outpost since the current station residents began their six-month stay in December.
At the end of the month, a Russian spacecraft is scheduled to arrive for a weeklong sojourn. The second paying space tourist, South African Internet tycoon Mark Shuttleworth, should be among the passengers.
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