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Shuttle, Weather Ready for Landing

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -The weather forecast is excellent for Friday morning's planned landing of shuttle Atlantis and seven astronauts at Kennedy Space Center after 11 days in space.

"It's looking really good," said Bryan Lunney, NASA flight director overseeing the shuttle's return to Earth.

The targeted touchdown time of 9:44 a.m. EST is the first of two opportunities Friday. The second would come at 11:19 a.m. after one more orbit, the mission's 172nd since launching Nov. 16.

If necessary, two more landing attempts could be made Saturday at KSC before NASA would switch to backup sites Sunday.

Atlantis is returning home after delivering more than 14 tons of spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station.

The shuttle also picked up a seventh crew member, Nicole Stott, who had been living at the station for three months. Before becoming an astronaut in 2000, she was a shuttle engineer at Kennedy Space Center for a decade.

"Coming back to KSC would be wonderful, after working there for so many years," she said before leaving the station.

On Thanksgiving, the crew tested 38 shuttle thrusters and other systems, including the wing flaps and tail rudder, to make sure they're functioning well.

The crew also learned that Atlantis' heat shields had been cleared for Friday's fiery re-entry through Earth's atmosphere, set to begin over the Pacific Ocean after an 8:36 a.m. engine burn starts the shuttle's drop from orbit.

"Atlantis is in great shape," Lunney said.

When flight directors congratulated Atlantis commander Charlie Hobaugh on the mission's success after Wednesday's departure from the space station, Hobaugh promised the crew wouldn't let up until the shuttle's wheels were motionless on Kennedy's Runway 33.

"We'll do our best to stay sharp until the round things stop rolling," he said.

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