CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew returned to Earth on Wednesday, wrapping up a 5 million-mile journey highlighted by the successful delivery of a new European lab, and a new European, to the international space station.
The shuttle and its seven astronauts landed at 9:07 a.m. at NASA's spaceport at Kennedy Space Center, where the crew's families and top space program managers gathered to welcome them home.
Commander Stephen Frick safely guided Atlantis down through a sky dotted with thin, wispy clouds and onto the runway.
"It's been a great mission. We're extremely happy to be home," Frick told Mission Control.
The re-entry path took Atlantis across the South Pacific, over El Salvador and Honduras and then the western tip of Cuba, and up into Florida.
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 missile could be launched as early as Wednesday night from a warship in the Pacific.
Atlantis circled Earth 202 times during its mission, which began Feb. 7. Nine of those 13 days were spent at the international space station, where the two crews installed the European science lab, Columbus, that was ferried up by the shuttle.
A French astronaut, Leopold Eyharts, remained at the orbiting outpost with an American and a Russian to get Columbus up and running.
He replaced NASA astronaut Daniel Tani, who returned home aboard Atlantis after 120 days in space.
Tani's mission was marred by the death of his 90-year-old mother in a traffic accident in December, halfway through his space station stay.
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.
He couldn't wait to be reunited with his wife, two young daughters and other family members.
Also on hand to greet Tani was the minister who presided over his mother's funeral, the Rev. Rob Hatfield of First Church of Lombard in Illinois.
NASA officials said Tani was doing well and experiencing the typical readjustment to gravity.
After two months of delay because of fuel gauge trouble, Atlantis ended up with an unusually trouble-free flight.
Heaters for a set of small thrusters failed earlier this week, but posed no concern for re-entry. And a radiator hose that was bent before the flight retracted neatly into its box when the payload bay doors were closed in the wee hours for landing.
After inspecting his ship on the runway, Frick noted that Atlantis worked "beautifully and perfectly."
"We got everything done that we had hoped to get done," he said.
NASA's next mission is just three weeks away.
Endeavour is scheduled to blast off with the first piece of Japan's massive space station lab on March 11.
The second piece of the Japanese Kibo lab — Kibo means hope — was supposed to go up in April aboard Discovery, but has been delayed until May because of shuttle fuel tank work.
Atlantis, meanwhile, won't fly again until the end of August, when it takes a team of repairmen to the Hubble Space Telescope for one final tuneup.
"I can't think of a better way to start this year out than this wonderful flight we just had," said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's space operations.