CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's shuttle Atlantis and seven astronauts are poised to return to Earth today to wrap up a nearly two-week mission that added a new European lab to the International Space Station (ISS).
Atlantis commander Stephen Frick and his six shuttle crewmates are due to land here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 9:07 a.m. EST (1407 GMT), where forecasts predict fair weather for their Earth return. A backup runway at California's Edwards Air Force Base is also available, though NASA and Atlantis astronauts are hoping for a Florida touchdown.
"We'd very much like to land at Kennedy," Frick told ABC News Tuesday, adding his crew's families and friends will be waiting at the shuttle's Florida runway. "We're very excited to see our families. We miss them very much and are looking forward to getting home."
Atlantis' STS-122 crew is completing a 13-day construction flight to the ISS, where astronauts swapped out one crewmember and delivered the 10-ton Columbus laboratory for the European Space Agency (ESA).
Returning with Frick today are shuttle pilot Alan Poindexter, mission specialists Rex Walheim, Leland Melvin, Stanley Love, Dan Tani and ESA astronaut Hans Schlegel of Germany. Tani is returning to Earth after about 121 days in space, most of that spent as an Expedition 16 flight engineer aboard the ISS. ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts, of France, launched aboard Atlantis on Feb. 7 as Tani's relief and will spend the next month commissioning Europe's 1.4 billion euro ($2 billion) Columbus lab.
Tani's joined the space station's crew in late October, but his mission was extended two extra months due to launch delays for Atlantis in December. He said he is eager to seeing his wife Jane and young daughters Keiko and Lilly after returning to Earth, as well as feeling the familiar downward tug of Earth's gravity.
"There are times in the day that you really miss gravity," Tani told CNN. "Putting things down and not losing them, and food on a plate where it doesn't fly around so you have to chase it around the room, those are things I'm looking forward to."
NASA roused the crew today at 12:55 a.m. EST (0555 GMT) with the song "Hail to the Spirit of Liberty" by John Philip Sousa, a tune chosen specifically for Poindexter by his family.
"We're really looking forward to entry day today and landing on the first [revolution]," Poindexter said as he thanked his wife Lisa and two sons. "We're ready to get to work."
Atlantis has four chances to land today, with the first two windows opening here at KSC at 9:07:39 a.m. EST (1407:39 GMT) and 10:42:35 a.m. EST (1542:35 GMT).
NASA also activated its backup runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert, where landing opportunities arise at 12:12:31 p.m. EST (1712:31 GMT) and 1:47:34 p.m. EST (1847:34 GMT). The space agency called up the alternate landing strip to give Atlantis more options for a Wednesday return. The U.S. military is waiting for the orbiter's landing before it attempts to shoot down a dead spy satellite the size of a bus before it crashes to Earth with a half-ton of toxic rocket fuel.
"We're not concerned about it," Frick told CNN Tuesday. "We're going to be safely on the ground and the space station is going to be safely well above the deorbiting satellite."
Because of Atlantis' limited water supplies to cool its systems and the length of the shuttle crew's day, NASA flight director Bryan Lunney said he would only attempt three of the four consecutive landing opportunities today. With weather forecasts predicting favorable conditions over the Shuttle Landing Facility here at KSC, Lunney said he was inclined to try twice for Florida before shifting to the first California window.
The Spaceflight Meteorology Group and NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, home of shuttle Mission Control, predicted scattered clouds and light winds at KSC during both landing opportunities, though the California options were marred by a slight chance of rain.
"That sounds like a great day to land in Florida," Frick radioed to Mission Control.
NASA is broadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.