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Shuttle lands, next station trip up in air

Atlantis safely returns to Florida's Kennedy Space Center
Atlantis safely returns to Florida's Kennedy Space Center

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CNN's Miles O'Brien reports on the mission of STS 112 to the international space station (October 18)
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Atlantis astronauts Sandra Magnus, David Wolf and Piers Sellers take a break in space to field questions from CNN's Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien (October 11)
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Astronauts flying on the space shuttle describe what it is like to ride in the craft as it lifts off toward outer space (October 8)
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• Interactive: Shuttle Mission Guide 

• NASA: Human Spaceflight external link

(CNN) -- The space shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday, capping a nearly flawless mission in which the crew attached a $390 million girder to the international space station.

Yet unexplained problems from the shuttle launch and the catastrophic loss of a Russian rocket earlier this week could delay future manned flights to the space station.

In space, the 11-day shuttle mission went smoothly, including three spacewalks to install a 14-ton, 45-foot-long (14-meter) metal truss to the station.

The aluminum beam includes 15 miles (24 kilometers) of wiring, several radiators and a rail cart, which astronauts and a giant robotic crane will use in the future to move around the exterior of the modular outpost.

The six Atlantis crewmembers were the first to fly in a shuttle since NASA grounded the entire fleet in June to repair hairline cracks found on the fuel lines of all four orbiters.

The Atlantis fliers, five NASA astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut, were also the first guests for the current space station residents, who arrived at the modular outpost the first week of June.

American Peggy Whitson and Russians Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev plan to return home next month in the shuttle Endeavour, which will also deliver another 14-ton girder to the space station.

Future launches in doubt?

A minor launch glitch last week could possibly postpone the Endeavour launch, scheduled for November 10.

During lift off, explosive charges meant to blow off bolts attaching Atlantis to the launch pad detonated as planned, thus releasing the shuttle.

But backup explosives to ensure the bolts shatter did not go off. NASA would like to know why before the next shuttle launch and plans an investigation that could last weeks.

Shuttle managers expressed confidence that the probe would not delay the Endeavour flight. But problems in Russia could threaten the next scheduled manned mission to the space station.

Two Russians and one Belgian are slated to launch October 28 on a space station trip to deliver a fresh Soyuz, which serve as emergency escape capsules for the station residents.

Yet the Russian space agency said the mission might be delayed at least several days as it investigates the cause of a launch mishap involving a similar kind of rocket.

The unmanned Soyuz-U rocket, a cheaper version of the Soyuz that carries manned crews, exploded shortly after take off from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russia on Tuesday, killing one and injuring eight on the ground.

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