- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2008

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.

Space shuttle Endeavour and its seven astronauts returned safely to Earth on Sunday, taking a detour to sunny California after storms hit the main landing strip in Florida.

Endeavour wrapped up a 16-day trip that left the International Space Station freshly remodeled and capable of housing bigger crews. The shuttle dropped off home improvement equipment, including a new bathroom, a kitchenette, an exercise machine, two sleeping quarters and a recycling system designed to convert astronauts’ urine and sweat into drinking water.

But the mission wasn’t without its problems. Astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper let go of a $100,000 tool bag during the first spacewalk. Endeavour’s astronauts also 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 that the repairs on the joint were successful.

The space station 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.

On Sunday, NASA ordered the detour to California after dangerously high wind and a stormy sky prevented a Florida landing. “It is what it is,” shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson radioed. “We’ll see you on the ground in California.”

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,” Mr. Ferguson replied.

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.

After landing, the astronauts inspected the shuttle’s underbelly. Accompanied by three crew members, Mr. Ferguson spoke briefly on the tarmac. He said Endeavour “fared entry pretty well” and called the mission extremely successful.

He noted that Mr. Chamitoff wasn’t present because it takes longer for a person who has been in space so long to reacclimatize to gravity, and said the other two astronauts - Mrs. Stefanyshyn-Piper and Donald Pettit - were keeping an eye on him.

NASA prefers to land the space shuttles at their 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.

AP writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this report.

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