Astronauts return triumphant to Earth

SUCCESSFUL ENDEAVOUR

May 17, 1992|By New York Times News Service

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The space shuttle Endeavour glided to Earth yesterday afternoon, ending a nine-day inaugural voyage that featured a daring rescue of a wayward communications satellite.

"Welcome to California and congratulations on a spectacular and historic flight," Jim Halsell of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration told the astronauts.

Under the command of Capt. Daniel C. Brandenstein of the Navy, the new shuttle landed at 4:57 p.m. EDT on a hot, slightly hazy day in the Mojave Desert.

As planned, within seconds of touching down, the space craft released a 40-foot-wide drag parachute to help slow it.

This was the first parachute-aided landing, a practice that the space program is expected to adopt for all shuttles to promote safety.

For many at NASA, the mission closes a difficult chapter. The Endeavour is the replacement ship for the Challenger, which exploded on takeoff six years ago, killing its seven-member crew, and NASA once again has a fleet of four shuttles.

The Endeavour blasted off May 7 from Cape Canaveral, Fla. It was the 47th flight in the space shuttle's 11 years of operations.

The mission had two goals: to send an errant satellite, owned by the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, into a higher orbit, and to practice assembly techniques needed to build NASA's proposed space station.

Both tasks were achieved, although not quite as planned. It took three spacewalks to rescue the $150 million satellite instead of the scheduled one.

This was the last opportunity to save the satellite, which was descending into Earth's atmosphere, where it would have been destroyed.

The final successful rescue involved an unprecedented number of astronauts -- three -- venturing into space and grabbing the 4 1/2 -ton satellite with their gloved hands and attaching a "capture bar."

Once they had maneuvered the satellite into the cargo bay, an engine booster was attached that later launched it into a higher orbit.

Because of the extra time required for the rescue, the mission was extended two days to allow a fourth spacewalk, to practice construction methods.

The shuttle arrived right on time to the delight of more than 110,000 people gathered near the 2.8-mile concrete runway. The crowd cheered as the craft set down.

The Endeavour is the only shuttle with a built-in drag chute deployment system.

In the past, landings have worn the shuttles' brake systems and damaged tires. Officials hope that the chute will relieve those problems.

The astronauts aboard the Endeavour were Captain Brandenstein, 49, the commander; Lt. Col. Kevin P. Chilton, 38, of the Air Force, the pilot; Lt. Col. Thomas D. Akers, 40, of the Air Force; Richard J. Hieb, 36; Cmdr. Bruce E. Melnick, 42, of the Coast Guard; Dr. Kathryn C. Thornton, 39; and Cmdr. Pierre J. Thout, 36, of the Navy.

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