Space shuttle Endeavour and its crew returned to Earth with a rare nighttime landing early today, ending a busy nine-day flight spent fetching satellites and walking in space.
“It was just one fantastic mission,” said Brian Duffy, commander of the six-member crew.
Endeavour landed at 2:42 a.m. (11:42 p.m. Friday PST) on a floodlit runway at Kennedy Space Center, following a journey of 3.7 million miles.
It was only the eighth time in 74 missions that NASA shuttles touched down in the dark.
Aboard the shuttle were two science satellites - one a Japanese spacecraft that was put in orbit nearly a year ago, the other a NASA probe that the astronauts released and retrieved two days later.
The middle-of-the-night landing was dictated by the course the shuttle had to follow in chasing down the Japanese satellite.
Capturing the Japanese satellite and its astronomical, newt and crystal experiments was the No. 1 priority for Endeavour’s U.S.-Japanese crew. The Japanese space program paid NASA about $65 million for pickup and delivery.
The satellite is missing its two fold-down solar panels. They had to be cut loose by ground controllers last week after failing to latch into place.
Crew members also took two spacewalks, on Monday and Wednesday. Leroy Chiao, Dr. Daniel Barry and Winston Scott gave mostly favorable reviews to the station-building tools and techniques they tested for a total of 13 hours in the frigid void.