The shuttle Endeavour broke free from the International Space Station a day early yesterday in a bid to dodge Hurricane Dean.
They ordered the shuttle’s seven astronauts to prepare for a landing tomorrow at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, despite lingering fears over damage to the shuttle’s vital heat shield which protects the ship during re-entry.
A piece of insulating foam fell from a fuel tank and broke two tiles on the shield as the shuttle lifted off two weeks ago. Engineers took the decision not to get astronauts to repair the damage in orbit believing it will not endanger the craft.
It was damage to the edge of a wing from falling debris that doomed Endeavour’s sister ship Columbia in 2003, killing all seven crew on re-entry.
After the shuttle undocked from the space station, 214 miles above the South Pacific, Endeavour’s crew extended a robotic arm, equipped with a camera, from the cargo bay to double-check the craft’s exterior. They paid particular attention to the shuttle’s nose and wings to make sure they had not been hit by any space debris during the mission.
The mission STS-118 crew, led by Commander Scott Kelly, spent nine days working jointly with three astronauts aboard the space station. They continued building the orbiting outpost which is now one of the most brilliant objects in the night sky.
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