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Space shuttle Endeavour on terra firma, ending 19 years as orbiter

A flawless predawn landing on Wednesday capped the penultimate flight of the US space shuttle program. With Endeavor's mission over, Atlantis is already on the launch pad.

By Staff writer / June 1, 2011

The crew of space shuttle Endeavour (l. to r.) European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori, pilot Gregory Johnson, commander Mark Kelly, mission specialist Michael Fincke, mission specialist Greg Chamitoff and Andrew Feustel wave after landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 1.

John Raoux/Reuters

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The space shuttle Endeavour and its six-member crew glided to a flawless predawn landing at the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday morning – capping a 16-day mission as well as Endeavour's 19-year career as an orbiting space plane.

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During the mission, the crew traveled to the International Space Station and installed a $2 billion particle physics experiment, delivered a pallet piled with spare parts, and performed a range of maintenance tasks aimed at preparing the station for life after shuttles.

With its career over, Endeavour will be decommissioned and shipped to the California Science Center in Los Angeles for display. The spot where its nose wheel stopped will be marked by a commemorative plaque on the side of the shuttle runway.

As if to pass the baton to the shuttle Atlantis, which is being prepared for the shuttle program's final launch no earlier than July 8, Endeavour touched down at about the time technicians finished rolling Atlantis out to launch pad 39A and secured it to its supports there.

With both operations going on simultaneously, "it's been a heck of a month in the last four hours," quipped Michael Moses, the shuttle program's launch integration manager, during a briefing after Endeavour's return.

The mission's centerpiece was the installation of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a 7.4-ton particle detector put together by an international collaboration headed by physicist Samuel Ting, a Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Within three or four hours of its installation, the detector began returning data that the science team – researchers from some 60 institutions in 16 countries – will pore over for evidence of dark matter, estimated to comprise 83 percent of all the matter in the universe.

Researchers also are looking for signatures in the detector that can help solve a longstanding puzzle over why the universe appears to have so little antimatter, when matter and antimatter should have been created in equal amounts as the universe emerged from the big bang – the sudden release of pent-up energy that cosmologists say spawned the cosmos.

And the detector will provide the most detailed look yet at the full spectrum of cosmic rays – essentially the nuclei of atoms – that astronauts would face as NASA prepares to explore destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.

Like a major department store that "anchors" a shopping mall, the AMS has become the high-profile tenant on the space station, marking the outpost's transition from "under construction" to "open for business" as a long-term, national-laboratory-class research facility.

"There were times when we weren't sure it [AMS] was going to fly" as NASA scaled back its plans for the shuttles after the Columbia disaster in 2003, says William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.


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