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 stay lasted 4-1/2 months.
Mission Control passed along best wishes from the space station residents, who said they missed Wakata but were “pretty happy” with his replacement.
“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, 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 (10.5 million kilometers), one of NASA’s longest. It wrapped up a 138-day trip for Wakata, who moved into the space station last March. He swapped places with American Timothy Kopra, who rode up on Endeavour.
Before leaving orbit, 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 wife and 11-year-old son, who were on hand at the space center for the homecoming.
Wakata made it back just in time for his 46th birthday on Saturday. Flight surgeons said he was doing quite well, considering this was his first taste of gravity in 4-1/2 months.
“I am relieved and happy to have my husband back,” Stefanie Wakata said in a written statement. “It has been a long journey for all of us, and I am looking forward to spending some time together.”
The shuttle 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.
Japan’s Kibo lab — which means Hope — received a front porch for outdoor experiments during Endeavour’s visit. An X-ray telescope and space environment monitor were installed on the porch, along with communication equipment.
The mission concluded work on the lab — the largest one at the orbiting outpost — that took more than a year and three shuttle flights. Next up for the Japanese will be the debut launch in September of an unmanned cargo ship.
As for NASA, seven shuttle flights remain to finish the space station, now 83 percent complete with nearly 700,000 pounds (317,518 kilograms) of mass. The next launch, by Discovery, is targeted for the end of August.