— Touchdown occurred at 0621 EDT and was the 21st night landing for a space shuttle
The space shuttle Atlantis safely landed at Kennedy Space Center at 0621 EDT (1021 GMT) on Thursday, ending a 12-day construction flight to the International Space Station.
"Wheel stop, Houston," commander Brent Jett radioed after Atlantis came to a halt on the runway.
"We copy, wheel stop," said shuttle communicator Tony Antonelli. "Welcome back and congratulations on return to assembly." This was the first ISS construction flight since before the Columbia accident in 2003.
Jett and pilot Chris Ferguson flew the orbiter back to its Florida launch site. Prior to landing, Atlantis glided over the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico before crossing the Gulf of Mexico and cutting across Florida.
The ISS crew watched from above as Atlantis descended back to Earth. "Spectacular lightning flashes directly below the orbiter there, just spectacular," said flight engineer Jeff Williams, as Atlantis flew over the Yucatan Peninsula. "The orbiter itself is getting dimmer, but the contrast itself is still pretty bright."
The orbiter underwent fierce heating during re-entry through the atmosphere, reaching temperatures of over 1260°C. Atlantis' heat shield was cleared for landing after inspections on Wednesday confirmed that it was undamaged.
A final round of inspections was added after an object was spotted orbiting with Atlantis. Mission managers wanted to make sure the object was not part of the critical heat shield that protects the orbiter during re-entry.
The astronauts have completed a 12-day mission to outfit the ISS with an expanded truss, including an extra set of solar arrays
With the help of two robotic arms, Atlantis crew members installed the element during three spacewalks. They also smoothly unfurled the electricity-generating solar arrays that had been folded within the new truss segment during its launch to the station.
The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to make the next flight to the ISS on 14 December. NASA will determine next week whether it will be possible to ready the shuttle for a launch on 7 December so that the shuttle teams will not have to work over the Christmas holidays.
Discovery's crew will reconfigure the station's power system on that flight. They will hook up the newly attached solar array so it can feed power to the station. The astronauts will also prepare the older solar array, currently on top of the ISS, to be moved to another section on the truss.
NASA has to launch at least 14 more shuttles to complete the station's construction before the vehicles retire in 2010.