CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle Endeavour and its orbiting zoo returned home to a safe, smooth landing yesterday at the Kennedy Space Center.
Tucked deep inside the shuttle's lab were 440 extraterrestrials -- brand-new baby tadpoles, the first earth animals to be conceived and born in space.
The Endeavour streaked across Central Florida at three times the speed of sound, descending through a powder-blue sky.
At 8:53 a.m., the main wheels of the glistening, white 100-ton orbiter touched the runway in the 12th space-center landing of the 11-year shuttle program.
At the Kennedy Space Center's life sciences building, not far from the runway, researchers quickly got the brood of Endeavour animals, whose every action was studied almost around the clock by two teams of astronauts on the shuttle's $1 billion, European-built space lab.
The nursery full of baby frogs was just one of several premier events on the Endeavour. The mission included the first married couple, astronauts Mark Lee and Jan Davis. For the record, NASA said, the two were too busy to even hold hands on this flight. The mission also featured the first Japanese astronaut, nuclear scientist Mamoru Mohri, and the first black female U.S. astronaut, mission specialist Mae Jemison.
Along with the seven astronauts, the $2 billion Endeavour was temporary home to four South African clawed frogs, two Japanese carp, 180 hornets and 7,600 fruit flies. But Jacob Ishay, an Israeli entomologist, found that two-thirds of the hornets aboard Endeavour died because of high humidity in their containers during the flight.
Most of the animal experiments were developed by Japanese scientists for the mission, which was sponsored by Japan's National Space Development Agency. The agency paid the National Aeronautics and Space Administration $90 million, including $47 million toward the $470 million launch cost.
"I don't think the mission could have gone any better," said Thora W. Hallstead, program scientist and spokeswoman for scientists involved in the mission.
"The frog experiments are part of an extremely important study . . . dealing with a really fundamental question," Ms. Hallstead said. "We are trying to find whether gravity plays a part in . . . determining which cells become an arm, what becomes a leg."
The landing was scheduled for about 7 a.m. but fog and scattered rain delayed it.