- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 1, 2009

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. | Space shuttle Endeavour and its seven astronauts returned to Earth on Friday, completing a long but successful construction job that boosted the size and power of the International Space Station.

Endeavour’s smooth and punctual arrival, after more than two weeks in orbit, set off a steady stream of congratulations and an ecstatic welcoming reception for Koichi Wakata, the first Japanese astronaut to return from a long space journey. His space station mission lasted 4 1/2 months.

At his request, sushi awaited him. But it was more than Mr. Wakata had anticipated; he was swamped with sushi as Kennedy Space Center workers dropped off the delicacy for him at crew quarters.

Mr. Wakata was greeted by the president of the Japanese space agency, who said the astronaut would be honored properly when he returns to Japan in a few months.

“He said he did his best,” said Keiji Tachikawa, president of the agency. The official said he was surprised to see Mr. Wakata walking shortly after touchdown, and described him as very healthy, despite the reintroduction to gravity, and happy to be back.

While pleased with Mr. Wakata’s replacement, the astronauts left behind on the space station said they missed him.

“We certainly miss being there, but there’s no place like home,” said shuttle commander Mark Polansky. He looked thrilled as he shook hands with senior managers and walked around his spaceship. “What a fantastic mission,” he said.

While visiting the space station, Mr. Polansky and his crew put on a new addition to Japan’s $1 billion lab, installed fresh batteries and stockpiled some big spare parts. They accomplished all of their major objectives and were part of the biggest gathering ever in space: Counting the six station residents, the crowd totaled 13.

The shuttle flight lasted 16 days and spanned 6.5 million miles, one of NASA’s longest. It wrapped up a 138-day trip for Mr. Wakata, who moved into the space station last March. He swapped places with American Timothy Kopra, who rode up on Endeavour.

Before leaving orbit, Mr. Wakata said he was yearning for some sushi for his first meal back on the planet and a soak in a hot spring once he’s back in Japan. At the top of his list, though, was reuniting with his German wife and their 11-year-old son, who were on hand at the space center for the homecoming. About 50 Japanese, in all, gathered at the landing site.

Endeavour’s other astronauts carried out five spacewalks - tying a record for a single flight - and helped their station colleagues when a toilet flooded and an air purifier overheated. The commode, one of three on the linked shuttle and station, was fixed in a day. But the air-cleansing system remained out of order Friday.

Another highlight: The astronauts got to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing with their own spacewalk.

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