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Shuttle returns after 13-day mission

The space shuttle Atlantis landed safely at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday, completing a nearly glitch-free 13-day construction mission to the International Space Station.

The seven-man crew delivered and installed the European-built Columbus laboratory module, underscoring the international contribution to the giant metal island orbiting 220 miles above Earth.

The importance of the mission “is beyond what we accomplished,” said German astronaut Hans Schlegel, after the touchdown at 9:07 a.m. Eastern time.

Installation of the European lab serves as “a role model for international cooperation,” he said.

The landing, with shuttle commander Steve Frick at the controls, went off without a hitch, despite some concerns over a low-lying cloud bank over the central Florida coast.

With the installation of Columbus, the space station is 57 percent complete, and weighs 567,856 pounds. When construction is complete, the station will weigh nearly 1 million pounds.

A lot of work remains, however. With less than three years to go before the shuttle fleet is retired, NASA must average about four construction missions per year to finish on time. This year, five more are scheduled.

The next shuttle launch will be the March 11 liftoff of Endeavor. It will attach the Japanese laboratory, called Kibo.


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