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Endeavour crew welcomed home in Houston

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Endeavour crew welcomed in Houston
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Endeavour "performed as if it were brand new," commander says
  • The now-retired shuttle is to be put on display at a Los Angeles museum
  • Endeavour astronaut set U.S. record for accumulated time in space

(CNN) -- NASA welcomed home the last crew of the space shuttle Endeavour with a ceremony at Houston's Johnson Space Center on Thursday, a day after their return from the orbiter's final flight.

Endeavour's commander, Capt. Mark Kelly, said the shuttle "performed as if it were brand-new" on its 25th and last trip into space. Kelly flew aboard Endeavour on his first space flight, in 2001, "and I was excited it was going to be on my last flight as well."

"It was great for me to be a part of such a superb mission with a fabulous group of crew members," said Kelly, the husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords is currently recovering in a Houston hospital from a head wound suffered during a January assassination attempt that left six others dead.

The entire six-member crew was made up of veteran astronauts. Mission specialist Mike "Spanky" Fincke set a new U.S. record for most accumulated time in space during the 16-day trip, and said "It was wonderful to be back."

"I think each and every one of us was touched again to look at Mother Earth and to see everything go by, the whole world, in 90 minutes," said Fincke, whose 382 career days in orbit include two tours aboard the International Space Station.

Mark Kelly: 'Great to be back'

Endeavour unlocked from the International Space Station late Sunday after spending more than 11 days docked with the orbiting laboratory, where the astronauts installed a cosmic ray detector. It landed at Florida's Kennedy Space Center before dawn Wednesday morning.

Endeavour was the baby of the shuttle fleet, commissioned as a replacement for the ill-fated Challenger, which blew up after launch in January 1986, killing all seven aboard. NASA's final shuttle flight is scheduled for July 8, when the orbiter Atlantis is slated to lift off.

But Kelly said retirement "is not the end" for Endeavour, which is scheduled to be put on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

"Its future is going to be to continue to inspire young people to pursue careers in science and engineering and math, and it's going to do that for a long time," he said.