Space shuttle Atlantis and its six astronauts glided to a safe landing in darkness early Thursday, ending a mission to the international space station whose smooth success was briefly upstaged by the high drama caused by mysterious floating debris.
"Glad to be back. It was a great team effort so I think assembly is off to a good start," commander Brent Jett said immediately after touchdown at Kennedy Space Center at 6:21 a.m. EDT (1021GMT).
The landing was a day later than planned because NASA ordered up more inspections of the spacecraft's delicate skin to make sure it was safe to come home. The fear was that one of the mysterious objects might have hit the shuttle.
"We've seen a new standard in NASA vigilance," said shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.
After numerous cameras above and below, some of them maneuvered robotically by the shuttle astronauts, NASA proclaimed the spacecraft damage-free.
The unplanned drama threatened to overshadow what had been a nearly flawless mission filled with strenuous spacewalks and rigorous robotics work that placed the international space station back on a path to completion after a 3Ѕ-year hiatus, reports AP.
NASA officials said their best guess was that the most worrisome object was a plastic filler placed in between thermal tiles that protect the shuttle from blasting heat. Four other pieces of debris, including a possible garbage bag, floated near the shuttle over the next day.
Atlantis' return avoided a near traffic jam at the space station, as a Russian Soyuz spacecraft arrived at the space station less than two days after Atlantis had departed.
It was the 21st landing in darkness of 114 successful landings.