What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been

This has been strange from the start. First, Atlantis just couldn't get off the ground and now it's having trouble coming home.

This mission was supposed to happen in 2003 and then Columbia disintegrated and the Atlantis flight to the space station was put on hold. Three years passed, and then when Atlantis was finally given a green light an unbelievable series of events kept it grounded for two more weeks.

Let's recount the problems. To start with, a lightning bolt hit the launch pad. Then an approaching Hurricane Ernesto pushed NASA into a Keystone Kops caper. Atlantis was hustled, well slowly moved, off the pad and then when the hurricane turned, the shuttle itself did a U-turn.

Once the weather cleared, the technical glitches began. A pump on one of the fuel cells failed and a squirreley fuel sensor acted up. But, Atlantis finally lifted off and the mission itself went beautifully. Space walking astronauts installed a 17 and a half ton truss and solar panels on the international space station. The work was done ahead of time, and only a couple of bolts were lost in the process.

So, the crew and NASA were feeling good about a job well done and Atlantis began its trek home.

And that's precisely when the mystery objects began to appear. First there was one, then another, and now three more -- little specks of space debris or tiny UFOs, which are causing NASA some big headaches.

Engineers were worried the debris may be pieces of the shuttle's heat shield needed for a safe re-entry, but now those fears have eased. Experts studying the strange images think the mystery objects may be small bits of material which simply floated out of the shuttle's cargo bay, perhaps even pieces of lint or small twists tie used to secure cables.

In any case, the objects appear to be more of a nuisance than a threat and NASA is increasingly optimistic the shuttle will come home tomorrow.
And when it lands, there will be a collective sigh of relief that one very strange trip has finally ended.