NASA Atlantis Shuttles Receives Red, White And Blue Homecoming

To celebrate the end of the NASA 30-year-old space shuttle program, the Empire State Building lit up in red, white and blue as Atlantis was prepared for a predawn Florida landing. The last active shuttle orbiter, set to land at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 a.m. EDT Thursday, could also land at 7:32 a.m., Flight Director Tony Ceccacci said. If neither time works, it could land Friday, he said. Excellent weather was forecast for Thursday's scheduled landing, Ceccacci said Wednesday. AccuWeather said it would be mostly clear and 78 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 a.m., with 5 mph winds from the southwest. Sunrise would be at 6:38 a.m. The four-person Atlantis crew - the smallest of any shuttle mission since the sixth shuttle flight in April 1983 - began deorbit preparations early Thursday, closing the payload bay doors that Wednesday launched the final shuttle payload - an 8-pound, 5- by 5- by 10-inch experimental solar-cell satellite called PicoSat. The satellite - the 180th payload launched by shuttles - will relay solar-cell data back for analysis and possible use on future space hardware, reports. About an hour before landing, Atlantis was to be rotated tail-first into the direction of travel to prepare for another firing of the orbital maneuvering system engines - a 3-minute firing called a deorbit burn to slow the shuttle enough to begin its descent. Atlantis, which launched July 8, left the giant International Space Station Tuesday after restocking it with a year's worth of supplies. The crew of Cmdr. Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim also delivered cargo to the station in the large, pressurized multipurpose logistics module Raffaello, named by its maker, the Italian Space Agency, after the Renaissance painter and architect Raffaello Sanzio - better known as Raphael - who with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, formed the traditional trinity of great masters of that time.

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