TOUCHDOWN: Atlantis returns after air lock installed on international space station

Wednesday, July 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Space shuttle Atlantis swooped through the night sky and touched down smoothly, completing its mission to install a new passageway for spacewalkers at the international space station.

The shuttle and its five astronauts landed on the floodlighted runway at Kennedy Space Center late Tuesday after a one-day delay caused by rain.

``Boy, did we have a really good flight,'' astronaut Janet Kavandi said early Wednesday after emerging from Atlantis.

The space station and its three residents were soaring above the Atlantic when the shuttle ended its 13-day, 5 million-mile journey. The clouds were high and sparse and there was no rain around. A line of showers had prevented the shuttle from landing Tuesday morning.

It was only the 18th space shuttle touchdown in darkness in 20 years. Infrared cameras showed the incoming spaceship as a ghostly white blur from as far out as 70 miles.

Commander Steven Lindsey later described it as ``diving into a black hole.'' He acknowledged he brought Atlantis down a little right of the center line and drifted even farther right before steering the ship back toward the left. ``No excuse,'' he told reporters.

In installing the space station's new air lock, the astronauts ended up working overtime because of air and water leaks, a screeching duct from a pump and a balky valve. NASA kept the shuttle crew at the station an extra day because of the problems.

``It was hard work. It was great work. It was probably the most satisfying thing that I've ever done,'' said James Reilly II, who took part in the mission's three spacewalks.

After hooking up the air lock on the orbiting complex, Reilly and Michael Gernhardt passed through it for their final spacewalk. ``Bottom line, it works great,'' despite an unexpectedly slow depressurization time, Gernhardt said.

Lindsey praised his crew and the space station occupants for working together to pull the mission off.

``I asked them to do all kinds of things,'' Lindsey said. ``I had them working and working well past what they should have been expected to do.''

The $164 million air lock and a billion-dollar robot arm installed in the spring will make it easier _ indeed, possible _ for space station astronauts to perform various tasks. Americans living aboard the station can now go out on spacewalks whenever they want wearing American suits, rather than Russian ones. American space suits are incompatible with the space station's Russian systems.

The next stage of space station assembly is shrouded in uncertainty as NASA struggles with budget overruns of more than $4 billion over the next five years. In jeopardy are a lifeboat and a habitation module that would double the number of full-time crew members the space station can accommodate.

``You always have to be focused on the future and we are,'' shuttle processing director Dave King said after Atlantis landed. ``At the same time, we do need to take the time to celebrate this. This is a huge success.''

Space shuttle Discovery is next up, with liftoff targeted for Aug. 9. The shuttle will drop off a fresh space station crew and bring back the two Americans and one Russian who have been in orbit since March.