EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) _ Atlantis' seven astronauts prepared to return to Houston from California on Saturday to reunite with their families, a day after the space shuttle was diverted to the state but landed safely.
Families and friends gathered Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to await Atlantis' return. But stormy weather forced NASA to wave the shuttle to the backup landing site in the Mojave Desert where it glided to a picture-perfect landing.
The astronauts made brief remarks on the tarmac.
``It's just great to be back on planet Earth,'' shuttle commander Rick Sturckow said. ``There were a lot of challenges on this mission and they were all surmounted. All the solutions worked well.''
Atlantis' return was the 51st time a space shuttle touched down at the Edwards Air Force Base since 1981. It capped a two-week mission to finish construction work on the international space station and bring a crew member home from the outpost.
Atlantis will remain in California for a week before returning to Florida atop a modified jumbo jet _ a journey that will cost the space agency $1.7 million.
During the 14-day visit to the international space station, the crew installed a new truss segment, unfurled a pair of solar panels and activated a rotating joint that allows the new solar arrays to track the sun.
Astronaut Sunita ``Suni'' Williams returned to Earth after spending more than six months at the space station. She set an endurance record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman at 195 days. During her stay, she also set the record for the most time spacewalking by a woman.
Also returning were pilot Lee Archambault and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, James Reilly, Steven Swanson and Danny Olivas.
Atlantis was supposed to launch in March but engineers had to repair the insulating foam on the shuttle's external tank that was dinged during a hail storm.