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Shuttle Atlantis Returns to Earth Safely

This story was updated at 10:09 a.m. EST.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The shuttle Atlantis and seven astronauts landed safely back on Earth Wednesday after a successful mission to deliver Europe's first permanent orbital laboratory to the International Space Station (ISS).

With shuttle commander Stephen Frick at the helm, Atlantis swooped out of the morning sky over NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) here and loosed two sonorous sonic booms before touching down at 9:07 a.m. EST (1407 GMT). The shuttle's return cleared the way for the U.S. military to shoot down a falling spy satellite the size of a bus.

"It's been a great mission," Frick said after landing. "We're extremely happy to be home and it's a great day in Florida. We can't wait to see our families."

Frick and his crew ferried a new crewmember to the station during their 13-day mission. They also delivered the European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus laboratory, a 1.4 billion euro ($2 billion) research module that represents Europe's largest contribution to the ISS project.

Returning to Earth aboard Atlantis with Frick were shuttle pilot Alan Poindexter, mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, Dan Tani and German astronaut Hans Schlegel, representing the ESA. French astronaut Leopold Eyharts launched with Atlantis' STS-122 mission, but stayed aboard the ISS after relieving Tani as a member of the station's Expedition 16 crew.

"We could be the example of how to tackle bigger problems in the future just in international cooperation," said Schlegel, who sat out the first of the STS-122 mission's three spacewalks due to an illness but bounced back in time for the second excursion. "It's a good feeling to do that."

Atlantis landed after circling the Earth 202 times on a trek that covered about 5.3 million miles (8.5 million km). Aside from Schlegel's sickness and a few other minor glitches, the mission — NASA's first shuttle flight of 2008 — went smoothly.

"It's certainly been an awesome, great display for both teams, the shuttle and space station programs," said NASA's LeRoy Cain, chair of Atlantis' STS-122 mission management team, before today's landing. "It's arguably one of the most successful docked missions that we've had."

Wednesday's successful landing gives the U.S. military a clear shot to launch a missile at a dead reconnaissance satellite from a Navy cruiser in the Pacific Ocean. Pentagon officials pledged to wait until Atlantis was safely home before destroying the out-of-control spy satellite to avoid endangering the public on Earth with the spacecraft's toxic half-ton load of hydrazine rocket fuel.

European base in space

Europe's Columbus lab is a 10-ton cylinder that added a new 23-foot (7-meter) long room to the ISS. The module's arrival also marked the activation of a new Mission Control center near Munich, Germany, where flight controllers now oversee the new laboratory 24 hours a day.

"I consider it the beginning of manned spaceflight for Europe," Schlegel said during the mission. "We have the opportunity to do experiments around the clock, all year."

Eyharts will spend the next month activating a set of science experiment racks inside Columbus while flight controllers commission two external payloads installed by Atlantis spacewalkers. ESA officials are also gearing up to launch Jules Verne, the agency's first Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo tug, to the ISS in early March.

Atlantis' STS-122 mission is NASA's first of up to six shuttle flights — five of them aimed at ISS construction — planned for 2008. The shuttle landed just days after its sister ship Endeavour reached the launch pad for its own STS-123 mission, which is set to launch on March 11 to deliver the first segment of Japan's Kibo laboratory and a two-armed addition to the station's robotic arm.

NASA hopes to launch Atlantis again in late August on the final mission to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle set down Wednesday 46 years to the day NASA launched its first-ever manned orbital flight, with Mercury astronaut John Glenn circling the Earth three times before landing to conclude the third manned U.S. spaceflight.

Astronaut's homecoming

For Tani, Wednesday's landing marked the end of an extended spaceflight that began in late October and ran about 120 days. Delays to Atlantis' planned launch in December extended his flight by two extra months, during which time his mother Rose was killed in a car accident.

"I'm very honored to be given an opportunity to do all these wonderful things," Tani said as he left the ISS, calling his mother his "inspiration." "I feel like I should have cherished them more as we were doing them, so a little regret."

In addition to reuniting with his wife Jane and young daughters Keiko and Lilly, Tani said he looked forward to reacquainting himself with gravity. He worked out on a treadmill aboard the ISS and returned to Earth in a reclined position to ease his readjustment.

"I think that being in a gravity environment is going to play havoc on my vestibular system like it always does for most people, and I'll just have to deal with that," he said.

Before leaving the ISS, Tani recollected a day during the joint mission when he floated between the station and Atlantis toting a video camera to find crewmates exercising and performing experiments while other astronauts were busy spacewalking outside.

"It was almost like a promotional video," he said. "And I thought, 'We're almost there.' We're doing science, we're building huge construction projects, we're doing [spacewalks] — it's just amazing."

NASA is broadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

Tariq Malik Editor-in-chief

Tariq is the editor-in-chief of Live Science's sister site He joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, focusing on human spaceflight, exploration and space science. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times, covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University.