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Successful Touchdown For Atlantis

Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew returned to Earth in the pre-dawn darkness Wednesday, capping a successful mission to the international space station.

"We've had a really great flight this time," flight director Wayne Hale said.

Powerful xenon lights illuminated the 3-mile-long landing strip as Atlantis swooped through the sky like a ghost ship, with a half-moon as a backdrop. The landing was right on time, at 3:56 a.m., just as the launch was back on Sept. 8.

"Welcome home," Mission Control said once Atlantis rolled to a stop. "Congratulations on an outstanding job. We are proud of you all."

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It was only the 15th nighttime landing in space shuttle history. Nighttime landings are becoming more common, though, now that NASA has a space station in orbit. All three previous shuttle flights to the space station also ended in darkness.

During their five days inside the space station, Atlantis' astronauts and cosmonauts hauled in 3 tons of equipment for the first permanent crew.

Among the supplies: shampoo, cream, shaving gel, moist towels and napkins, Russian and American meals, ear plugs, medical kits, labels, printer parts, clamps, brackets, camera equipment and small bags for the crew to use to relieve themselves in case the toilet jams.

The seven shuttle crewmen also installed the toilet, oxygen generator and treadmill in the new living quarters, and ran power and TV cables up the outside.

Getting an extra day helped. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration stretched the mission to 12 days to give the astronauts more time inside.

"We started with 52 items in our to-do list and wound up doing 74 different tasks on board the station, large and small," Hale said Tuesday.

The only disappointment was with one of five new batteries that were plugged into the Russian modules. It would not charge properly and was disconnected; the first residents will deal with the problem when they arrive.

Another shuttle crew is scheduled to depart for the space station on Oct. 5 aboard Discovery. The first space station residents will follow on Oct. 30 aboard a Russian rocket, arriving two days later for a four-month stay.

Among the three tons of equipment and supplies left behind were a toilet, exercise machines and laptop computers.

The station is in the early stages of construction and will not be completed before 2006. It is a joint project of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

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