Atlantis astronauts prepare for landing after successful mission

Astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis are getting ready to return to Earth early Thursday, now that the weather has improved and they have reassurance that their spaceship is fit for the journey.

The crew closed the doors of the payload bay, which had held their 17 1/2-ton cargo, at 0635 GMT, marking the official beginning of the landing process. About two hours later, NASA will make the final go/no-go decision, and half an hour after that, astronauts will fire engines to slow the aircraft and begin descent to Earth.

They're due to land at Kennedy Space Center at 1021 GMT. Their landing path takes them over the Pacific, Mexico and Gulf Coast before touching down at Cape Canaveral in Florida, reports AP.

The six astronauts, who have been in the cosmos since Sept. 9, were supposed to land a day earlier after successfully completing the first mission dedicated to assembling the space station since the Columbia accident in 2003. But NASA decided to wait a day because of a storm front moving through Florida and the discovery of floating objects near the spacecraft. A thorough investigation on Wednesday of the shuttle's heat shield, which protects it from hot gases that accompany re-entry into the atmosphere, showed no damage from the debris and assured engineers that the debris wasn't from the heat shield itself, either.

In what is expected to be their last day in space, the Atlantis crew woke up to "WWOZ" by Better Than Ezra.