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Shuttle lands after record wait

By Miles O'Brien
CNN Space Correspondent

Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center
Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center

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The Shuttle Endeavour lands at Florida's Kennedy Space Center after an unprecedented three days of weather delays. (December 7)
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- The space shuttle Endeavour landed safely Saturday after an unprecedented three consecutive days of delays due to bad weather.

Endeavour touched down at 2:37 p.m. EST with six-time shuttle veteran Jim Wetherbee at the helm. The U.S. Navy captain is the only astronaut to land a shuttle five times.

The return marks the end of a successful 14-day, 5.8 million-mile flight to the international space station, the 16th shuttle visit to the orbiting outpost.

The shuttle carried a crew of four, plus a three-person space station crew returning to Earth after more than six months in orbit.

Landing attempts on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were postponed on account of bad weather.

On Saturday, sky conditions again threatened to scrub an early afternoon landing attempt at Florida's Kennedy's Space Center, where the three-mile-long shuttle runway sits amid an alligator-infested mangrove swamp.

But mission managers in Houston determined that the weather conditions would fall within acceptable limits for shuttle landings.

The orbiters can travel at 25 times the speed of sound and withstand more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit on re-entry. But they cannot fly through even slight rain clouds for fear of damaging their heat-protective tiles.

Nor can they can they land if the commander cannot see the runway clearly all the way down to the threshold.

$1 million in shipping and handling

The Saturday landing took place after three consecutive days of delays, a NASA record. In the past, the shuttles have always landed within three days of the originally scheduled touchdown.

Had the weather prevented a Florida landing on Saturday, NASA would have attempted to bring the shuttle home at the primary backup strip, Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California.

NASA prefers to avoid the itinerary change because it costs about $1 million to transport the shuttle back to Florida. The process involves flying it piggybacked on a 747 jet aircraft.

In the past, six shuttle flights landed on third-day attempts, two in Florida and the remainder in California.

Besides bringing home the former space station crew, Endeavour dropped off three fresh residents at the orbiting outpost. They expect to live in orbit for four months.

In addition to the space station crew exchange, the Endeavour team added a school-bus size truss to the station -- using shuttle and space station robotic arms and three spacewalks to install the $390 million girder.

The shuttle mission was the last of the year. Endeavour's sister ship Columbia is set to begin a 16-day science flight on February 1, carrying the first astronaut from Israel, Ilan Ramon.

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