CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA savored the return Wednesday of Atlantis and its astronauts from a near-perfect space station mission — then quickly revved up anticipation for another shuttle launch next month.
It's been years since the space agency has attempted such rapid-fire, back-to-back flights.
"It feels good. I mean, it feels really good to be having missions back to back like this again. It almost feels like the mid-90s again," said launch director Mike Leinbach, referring to one of NASA's hottest shuttle streaks.
Forty-six years to the day that John Glenn made his famous orbiting of Earth, Atlantis and its seven-man crew — four of whom weren't even born yet on Feb. 20, 1962 — swooped through thin clouds and landed smoothly on the runway.
NASA didn't waste any time praising the astronauts for successfully delivering the European lab, Columbus, to the international space station.
Mission Control radioed "congrats" as soon as the shuttle made its morning touchdown, and the chief of NASA's space operations followed up, calling it "just an unbelievably super mission for us."
"I can't think of a better way to start this year out than this wonderful flight we just had," said the chief, Bill Gerstenmaier.
Atlantis' strong performance makes it all that much easier for NASA to prepare to launch Endeavour on March 11. Endeavour will carry up the first piece of Japan's massive space station lab, named Kibo, which means hope.
Discovery will follow with more of the Japanese lab in late May, a month later than planned because of shuttle fuel tank work.
The flights are scheduled so close together because of the looming 2010 deadline to retire the shuttles and complete the space station. It also took NASA some time to get in a launch groove following the Columbia disaster in 2003.
Fuel tank problems dogged NASA as recently as December, when Atlantis' flight was delayed until this month.
NASA wanted Atlantis back as soon as possible to clear the way for the Navy to shoot down a dying spy satellite on the verge of smashing into Earth with a load of toxic fuel. The agency didn't want to subject the shuttle and its crew to dangerous debris.
After Atlantis touched down, commander Stephen Frick said he and his crewmates were "extremely happy" to be back in Florida. They brought home former space station resident Daniel Tani, who was off the planet for 120 days.
"It's been a long mission, a real busy mission, but it's just been a tremendous experience," Frick said.
As for Tani, "I was amazed. He was smiling. He was off the vehicle before I was," Frick said. "He looked better than I did, really, so I feel kind of bad."
Tani's space station mission was marred by the death of his 90-year-old mother in a traffic accident in December.
Even though the astronaut was able to listen in to her funeral, he said it was difficult being so far away at such a tragic time, and he couldn't wait to be reunited with his wife, two young daughters and other family members waiting for him at Kennedy Space Center.
Among those on hand to greet Tani was the minister who presided over the funeral, the Rev. Rob Hatfield of First Church of Lombard in Illinois.
"It's a terribly sad tragedy that happened to Dan's family when he was on orbit," Frick said at an afternoon news conference. "Dan is dealing with it in his own way."
After two months of delay because of fuel gauge trouble, Atlantis ended up with an unusually trouble-free flight. Thruster heaters failed earlier this week, but posed no concern for re-entry. And a radiator hose that was bent before the flight retracted neatly when the payload bay doors were closed for landing.
After inspecting his ship on the runway, Frick noted that Atlantis worked "beautifully and perfectly."
The only significant problem during the 13-day flight — which spanned 5.3 million miles and 202 orbits of Earth — was an ailing astronaut. German Hans Schlegel got sick after reaching orbit on Feb. 7 and was pulled off his first spacewalk. That delayed Columbus' installation by a day.
Schlegel hasn't said what ailed him.
The next time Atlantis flies will be at the end of August. Its destination: the Hubble Space Telescope.