CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The seven astronauts of NASA's shuttle Atlantis were glad to be home Wednesday after a successful space station construction mission that ended with a smooth glide back to Earth.
Shuttle commander Stephen Frick and his STS-122 crew celebrated their 13-day flight, which delivered the European-built Columbus laboratory and a new crewmember to the International Space Station (ISS).
"We're really happy to be home today," Frick told reporters here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "It's been a long mission, a really busy mission. But it's been a tremendous experience."
With Frick at the controls, Atlantis swooped out of the Florida sky to land at 9:07 a.m. EST (1407 GMT) and end the first of up to six NASA shuttle flights planned for this year. Shuttle pilot Alan Poindexter, mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, Dan Tani and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Hans Schlegel of Germany comprised the rest of the crew.
"Atlantis was in super shape and took care of us," said Poindexter, a first-time spaceflyer who took the shuttle's controls Monday and flew a victory lap around the ISS. "We're glad she's safely back here."
Missing among the STS-122 crew was French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who launched aboard Atlantis Feb. 7, but stayed behind on the space station to continue the commission of the ESA's 1.4 billion euro ($2 billion) Columbus module. Eyharts replaced Tani, a U.S. astronaut who returned to Earth today after four months in space.
"I was amazed — he looked better than I did," Frick said of Tani, who has spent the last 120 days living in weightlessness aboard the ISS. "He's doing great."
Schlegel, who sat out one the STS-122 crew's three spacewalks due an illness but recovered in time to for the mission's second excursion, said the spaceflight marked a milestone for Europe.
"From now on, Europe has its presence in space," Schlegel said, adding that the mission was a experience of a lifetime. "For ESA, for all of Europe, it's the beginning of the human spaceflight."
Love added that the spaceflight added the first new piece of the space station dedicated purely to scientific research.
"One of the things the station hasn't been able to do yet as much as we had wanted is science," said Love, who helped install the lab and add exterior experiments during two spacewalks. "It's a privilege to me to be part of this wonderful team that's put a dedicated science laboratory on station and put some new instruments on the outside of it to do the work that station was intended for."
Love's spacewalking partner, veteran spaceflyer Rex Walheim, said he relished the chance to return to the ISS, which he last visited during a 2002 shuttle flight.
"It did feel great to be back," said Walheim, who got a chance to revisit the station trusswork that he helped install on his earlier flight during the STS-122 spacewalks. "It's neat to see it expanding because it is bigger, there's no question about it."
But for Melvin, who like Poindexter and Love completed his first spaceflight, the mission was a model for teamwork. And when it comes to teamwork, Melvin — a former draft pick for the NFL's Detroit Lions — would know.
"The international flavor of this team, all the people working together to put this Columbus module in space has just been breathtaking," Melvin said. "Everyone working together is just a benefit to humankind, and something that's going to carry us back to the moon and Mars and beyond."
In addition to clearing the way for future space station construction, Atlantis' successful landing cleared the way for the U.S. military's plans to shoot down an ailing spy satellite. The U.S. Navy was waiting for Atlantis' return before pressing ahead with plans to destroy the bus-sized object before it enters the Earth's atmosphere to prevent a half-ton load of toxic rocket fuel from endangering people on the ground.