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Shuttle Glides to ‘Picture-Perfect’ Landing

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA is gearing up for the shuttle program's final year after Atlantis' safe return Friday ended an 11-day voyage, the last of five successful missions in 2009.

"Houston, wheels stop," commander Charlie Hobaugh radioed shortly after Atlantis completed a steep dive through crisp, blue skies with a 9:44 a.m. EST touchdown at Kennedy Space Center.

"That was a picture-perfect end to a top-fuel mission to the International Space Station," replied Chris Ferguson, an astronaut communicating with the crew from Houston, making a reference to drag racing. "Everybody, welcome back to Earth, especially you, Nicole."

Former KSC engineer Nicole Stott lay in a special recumbent seat set up to help her body readjust to Earth's gravity after 87 days working on the space station.

Atlantis enjoyed a virtually problem-free mission.

"We had no hitches," Hobaugh said from the spaceport's 3-mile runway. "We went off on time, we landed on time."

In between a Nov. 16 blastoff and Friday, the crew emptied the shuttle payload bay of two platforms loaded with large spare parts weighing more than 27,000 pounds.

The spares will stay stowed outside the station until needed, perhaps years after the shuttle is no longer available to service the station, which is now 86-percent complete.

Three spacewalks totaling more than 18 hours all ran ahead of schedule and completed bonus tasks that will reduce the workload on future missions.

Things not only went well in space. Mission specialist Randy Bresnik's wife delivered a healthy baby girl late last Saturday in Houston.

In celebration, he floated pink bubble gum cigars to crewmates and showed off a pink onesie emblazoned with the mission's patch.

Bresnik, who already has a son, was the second U.S. astronaut to miss a child's birth while in orbit. He flew back to Houston hours after the shuttle landed Friday to meet his daughter, Abigail Mae.

The rest of the crew - including Hobaugh, Stott, pilot Barry Wilmore and mission specialists Mike Foreman and Bobby Satcher - enjoyed a belated turkey dinner at KSC's crew quarters before returning home Saturday.

It was the second straight year, and the seventh to date, that a shuttle was in space for Thanksgiving.

Stott said before landing she was looking forward to a slice of New York-style pizza and a Coke over crushed ice. Crewmates said she was eager to walk unassisted after landing, and she appeared in good spirits in a NASA interview.

"When they opened the hatch, it smelled like fresh, clean fall air, and that was really nice," she said.

The crew overcame one unexpected challenge on the station. False depressurization and fire alarms rang out on consecutive nights, rousing the seven shuttle astronauts and five station residents from sleep.

The issue threatened to delay a spacewalk, but mission managers kept the timeline on track and resolved the problem.

Atlantis' flight was its 31st and the 129th of the shuttle program since 1981, including 31 trips to the station.

This year's flights included four assembly and supply runs to the orbiting science complex and a final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope.

"This has just been an amazing year for us," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

NASA plans to retire the shuttle fleet next year after five more flights that will complete the station and add more spares. The last flight is targeted for launch Sept. 16, 2010.

"Am I going to make 9/16?" said Mike Moses, shuttle launch integration manager, of the tight schedule. "Maybe. I think we have a really good shot at it."

The Obama administration has indicated funding will be available if the schedule slips into late next year or 2011.

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