HOUSTON (AP) _ Fearing Hurricane Dean could disrupt flight operations, NASA ordered space shuttle Endeavour back to Earth from the international space station a day early.
Endeavour was set to depart Sunday after space agency managers worried that Dean would move toward Houston, forcing them to evacuate to a smaller-staffed makeshift control center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Endeavour crew prepared to land on Tuesday as a precaution.
After the hatch closed between the two spacecraft Saturday, the space station's commander, Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, said he was sorry to see his shuttle guests leave early.
``Unfortunately, it's too quiet on station now and we are like alone,'' he told Mission Control.''
The Endeavour crew had to compress their schedule to get ready for an early undocking. A spacewalk on Saturday was shortened so the astronauts could wrap up their work at the station. During that jaunt, the spacewalkers saw the eye of the enormous hurricane swirling in the Caribbean and expressed their amazement at the sight.
The crew, which includes teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, has been at the orbiting outpost since Aug. 10. In that time, they have attached a new truss segment to the station, delivered cargo and replaced a failed gyroscope, which controls the station's orientation.
Their wakeup call Sunday was the rock song ``Teacher, Teacher'' by 38 Special, a tribute to Morgan. Morgan was Christa McAuliffe's backup on the tragic 1986 Challenger mission and she waited for two decades to fly into space.
Although it was uncertain whether Dean, a Category 4 storm, might strike the Texas coastline later this week, NASA managers said it would be irresponsible not to cut the mission short, especially since most of the tasks had been completed.
``I would defy just about anybody to tell me at this point that there's zero or even extremely low probability or possibility that the storm is going to come here,'' said LeRoy Cain.
NASA is ready to rush a skeleton crew of flight controllers to Cape Canaveral, but only if the shuttle cannot land Tuesday for some reason and the hurricane is bearing down on Houston and threatening the city for several days, Cain said.
``That's a fairly, I hope, unlikely scenario simply because all those things have to line up,'' he said.
In 26 years of space shuttle flight, NASA never has had to call up an emergency Mission Control, although it has been practiced.
NASA's hurricane deliberations followed a decision to forgo shuttle repairs.
Mission managers concluded earlier this week that a deep gouge on Endeavour's belly posed no Columbia-like threat to the seven crew members during re-entry and also would not lead to lengthy postflight shuttle repairs.
For several days, managers had considered sending two astronauts out with black protective paint and untested goo to patch the 3 1/2-inch-long, 2-inch-wide gouge that dug all the way through the thermal tiles.
The gouge was caused by debris that broke off a bracket on Endeavour's external fuel tank during liftoff Aug. 8. Engineers still do not know whether it was foam insulation, ice or a combination of both. In any case, NASA said it will not launch another shuttle until the longtime troublesome brackets are fixed.
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