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Columbia lands safely after setting endurance record

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December 6, 1996
Web posted at: 7:30 a.m. EST

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- Space shuttle Columbia landed safely at Kennedy Space Center Saturday after nearly 18 days in space, the longest flight in space shuttle history. The pre-dawn landing caps an end to a mission marked by two successful experiments, a jammed hatch and several landing delays.

movie icon (1.2 MB / 40 sec. Space Shuttle Columbia landing QuickTime movie)

"Welcome home after your record-setting mission," Mission Control said after Columbia rolled to a stop.

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Columbia swooped through a slightly hazy sky and touched down at 6:49 a.m., minutes before sunrise. The weather finally cooperated. Fog and low clouds over the landing strip had forced ground controllers to call off landing attempts on Thursday and Friday.

As the shuttle headed for Kennedy Space Center, Mission Control piped up a recording of the Navy hymn "Anchors Aweigh," then gave commander Kenneth Cockrell the go-ahead to fire the braking engines and come home.

"We're pumped up now," Cockrell said.

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The five astronauts surpassed the previous shuttle endurance record of 16 days, 21 hours, 48 minutes and 30 seconds on Friday, a few hours after Mission Control decided to keep the shuttle aloft for yet another day.

Columbia's new mark: 17 days, 15 hours and 53 minutes. Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle, also had set the former record.

Hatch marred mission

Despite the successful release and retrieval of two satellites, the flight was marred by a stuck hatch that forced the cancellation of a pair of spacewalks and the failure of a navigational unit. The spacewalks were intended for astronauts to practice construction for the international space station.

"We had some little hiccups along the way, but it was a great flight overall," Cockrell said Thursday.

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Columbia went up on November 19, carrying two satellites and five astronauts. Early in the mission, the crew released a U.S.-German ultraviolet telescope which orbited in free flight for two weeks studying stars and galaxies.

The crew later released a second satellite, an orbiting instrument that manufactured semi-conductors in the pure environment of space.

Columbia then led the telescope and semi-conductor satellite for three days in an unprecedented orbital caravan that extended up to 75 miles (120 km).

Both satellites were retrieved. The Columbia crew had a brief scare when the semi-conductor satellite passed within 10 feet of the cockpit windows.

The crew included Story Musgrave, 61, who became the oldest person ever to travel in space, the first to fly six times on space shuttles and the first to ride in all five shuttles.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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