After 144 days away from his family and planet, astronaut Michael Foale’s return from Mir was delayed Sunday because of thick clouds that prevented a safe landing by space shuttle Atlantis.
NASA waited until the last minute before ordering the seven-member shuttle crew to remain in orbit an extra day.
Although the weather was good enough for an unmanned rocket to blast off with a communication satellite, the sky was too cloudy for Atlantis to attempt a tricky touchdown in darkness. Earlier in the evening, gusty wind was also a concern.
If he returns this evening as now planned, Foale will have spent 145 days in orbit.
Foale couldn’t wait to see his wife and two young children and to dig into some pizza and pasta. Also on his wish list: beer and “a lot of chocolate.”
“Ian hasn’t been crying for Daddy because he can see my excitement and he knows he’s coming home,” Rhonda Foale said of their 3-year-old son.
Foale’s 4-1/2 months aboard Russia’s aging space station were often trying and sometimes downright scary.
A cargo ship similar to the one launched to Mir from Kazakstan on Sunday plowed into the station in June, one month after Foale arrived.
The 40-year-old astrophysicist - whose mission is exceeded on the U.S. side only by Shannon Lucid’s 188-day Mir tour in 1996 - lost half his science experiments and almost all his personal belongings in the crash. As a result, he’s coming home pretty much empty-handed; the charms he took up for his wife and friends are sealed in the ruptured lab.
Frequent computer breakdowns also left Mir running on reduced power during Foale’s visit. And a too-close-for-comfort satellite briefly forced him and his two Russian companions into their escape capsule in mid-September.
Because of Foale’s increasingly close calls, some members of Congress and others had urged NASA to stop putting astronauts on the 11-1/2-year-old space station. But NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin discounted the objections and, just one day before Atlantis’ Sept. 25 liftoff, cleared Foale’s successor, David Wolf, for a four-month stay.