EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Space shuttle Endeavour and its seven astronauts safely returned to Earth on Sunday, taking a detour to sunny California after storms hit the main landing strip in Florida.
Endeavour touched down at 4:25 p.m. EST, wrapping up a 16-day trip that left the international space station freshly remodeled and capable of housing bigger crews.
NASA ordered the detour after dangerously high wind and a stormy sky prevented a Florida landing. With the weather at Kennedy Space Center looking no better for Monday, Mission Control opted for its backup landing site.
"Welcome back. That was a great way to finish a fantastic flight," Mission Control radioed.
"And we're happy to be here in California," shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson replied.
Congratulations also came down from the space station. "Wow," said skipper Mike Fincke, who watched the landing broadcast live.
Returning home from a six-month mission was former space station resident Gregory Chamitoff, who had rocketed away from the planet at the end of May.
The space shuttle's journey, short by comparison, spanned 6.6 million miles and 250 orbits of Earth.
NASA always prefers to land the space shuttles at its home base in Florida. It takes about a week and costs $1.8 million to transport a shuttle from California to Florida, atop a modified jumbo jet.
The astronauts also had been rooting for a Florida touchdown; that's where their families were waiting.
But the crosswind at the Florida landing strip was too strong, and thunderstorms moved in. Monday's outlook was just as dismal; NASA officials said it would make no sense to keep Endeavour in orbit an extra day if the weather wasn't expected to improve in Florida.
As Endeavour soared over Houston, home to Mission Control, Ferguson could see all the bad weather in Florida.
"I think you made a good call," he radioed.
It was the first space shuttle landing at Edwards in more than a year. Ferguson aimed for a temporary runway that's shorter and more narrow than the Kennedy landing strip. Edwards' main runway — which parallels the temporary one — just underwent maintenance and upgrades, and has yet to be equipped with all the necessary navigation equipment.
NASA officials weren't concerned, saying both Ferguson and his co-pilot, Eric Boe, practiced on the temporary runway in training aircraft.
Flight surgeons were standing by at Edwards. Chamitoff, in particular, was expected to need assistance at touchdown; he had not experienced gravity for six months.
Endeavour blasted into orbit Nov. 14, carrying up all kinds of home improvement equipment for the space station. It dropped off a new bathroom, kitchenette, exercise machine, two sleeping quarters and a recycling system designed to convert astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water.
The additions — and a few more scheduled to go up on the next shuttle flight in February — should enable NASA to double the size of the space station crew by June.
Endeavour's astronauts helped install the recycling machine and had to put in extra effort to get the urine processor working.
About seven liters of recycled urine and condensation were coming back aboard Endeavour for extensive testing. No one at the space station will drink the recycled water until the equipment runs for 90 days and ground tests ensure it's safe. More samples will be returned on the next shuttle flight.
The shuttle crew also conducted four spacewalks to clear metal shavings from a solar wing rotary joint at the space station. The joint had been jammed for more than a year and hampered energy production at the orbiting outpost.
Initial tests indicated the repairs on the joint were successful. Overshadowing the clean and lube job, however, was the loss of a $100,000 tool bag. Astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper let go of the bag during the first spacewalk; it wasn't tied down and floated away.
Early Sunday morning, a Russian supply ship arrived at the space station with Christmas presents, food, clothes and other items.