Endeavour Crew Readies for Early Return to Earth to Avoid Hurricane Dean

Their mission cut short by Hurricane Dean, astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavour wrapped up their work in orbit Monday and prepared to come home.

At midmorning, NASA cleared the shuttle for re-entry after analyzing the results of Sunday's close-up laser scans of Endeavour's wings and nose.

The hurricane no longer posed much of a threat to the Houston home of Mission Control, but managers did not want to take any chance and proceeded toward a Tuesday landing.

"There is still uncertainty with a storm like this, but right now it's looking pretty good from our standpoint," said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team. "The threat is certainly somewhat less than it was the last two days."

NASA said the preliminary weather forecast looked good for Tuesday's planned early afternoon touchdown at Kennedy Space Center.

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After leaving the international space station a day early on Sunday, Endeavour's crew inspected their ship one final time to make sure it would be prepared for the fiery descent through the atmosphere.

The astronauts used a laser-tipped boom to hunt for possible micrometeorite damage to the shuttle's wing and nose that might have occurred during the nine days the shuttle was docked to the space station.

NASA expects to have all the latest laser data analyzed by Monday evening.

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The crew did not maneuver the 100-foot robotic arm and extension boom under the shuttle's gouged belly Sunday. Engineers have already determined that the small but deep gouge, caused by launch debris, poses no danger.

Endeavour's departure from the space station was a hurried affair because of the moved-up schedule. The shuttle did not circle the station afterward as is usually preferred for photos, and teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan had to bow out of an education session with youngsters in Lynn, Mass.

Morgan, Christa McAuliffe's backup for the doomed Challenger flight, was scheduled to join Endeavour commander Scott Kelly and Canadian astronaut Dave Williams for a chat with students in Saskatchewan later Monday.

The rest of the crew's day was dedicated to pre-landing systems checks and other chores.

While Endeavour was docked at the station, the astronauts conducted four spacewalks to install a new truss segment to the orbiting outpost's backbone and replace a failed gyroscope, among other tasks.

Two of the spacewalks were cut short, one because of a cut in an astronauts' glove and another to accommodate the early departure.

Mission managers decided Saturday to bring Endeavour back a day early because of the hurricane. NASA could rush a skeleton flight control team from Houston to Cape Canaveral but is loath to do so because the emergency operation would be scaled-down.

Bad weather on Earth rarely cuts shuttle missions short. In fact, it often has the opposite effect, keeping shuttles in orbit longer.