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Atlantis Returns Safely to Earth

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Atlantis gracefully returned to Earth at Kennedy Space Center on Friday, bringing to an end 11 days in space and a jam-packed year of five successful shuttle missions for NASA.

The orbiter and seven astronauts landed at 9:44 a.m. at KSC's Runway 33, bringing its total trip just short of 4.5 million miles.

"Couldn't have picked a clearer day," commander Charlie Hobaugh radioed to Mission Control as the orbiter descended home.

"Everybody welcome back to Earth," astronaut Chris Ferguson, who was communicating with the crew from Mission Control, said as the shuttle's wheels touched down.

Atlantis delivered more than 14 tons of spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station - items essential to keep the orbiting outpost running long after the shuttle fleet's planned retirement late next year or in early 2011. The shuttle also brought home astronaut Nicole Stott, who lived aboard the station for three months.

And it returned astronaut Randy Bresnik to a larger family. Bresnik's wife, Rebecca, gave birth to their baby girl, Abigail Mae, in Houston late Saturday night. The couple already have a son. Bresnik became only the second U.S. astronaut to miss the birth of their child because they were in orbit.

Just as Atlantis' Nov. 16 launch was deemed "picture perfect," the landing also elicited a similar comment from Mission Control. Weather over Kennedy Space Center cooperated; it was chilly, but skies were clear and winds low, allowing NASA to avoid even calling up other landing sites.

Atlantis' return to Earth ends a busy year for NASA, which launched four space station servicing missions and one trip to repair and extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA has another handful of flights scheduled before the fleet's planned retirement.

President Barack Obama is currently weighing options presented to him by a blue-ribbon panel on what direction to take America's human spaceflight program after the shuttle fleet's retirement. The panel concluded that NASA needs an additional $3 billion a year to conduct any meaningful space exploration.

Meanwhile, NASA continues to move ahead with its Constellation program, which includes the Ares I crew launcher, the Orion crew capsule and the Ares V heavy-lift rocket to carry cargo.

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