The Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- With Hurricane Dean considered hardly any threat to Mission Control, Endeavour's astronauts left the international space station a day early and inspected their ship one final time Sunday to make sure it's safe for re-entry.
NASA is shooting for a Tuesday landing, a day ahead of schedule, to avoid any disruptions to flight operations in case the formidable storm takes aim at Houston. As of Sunday afternoon, that looked extremely unlikely, but mission managers did not want to chance it.
"There is still uncertainty with a storm like this, but right now it's looking pretty good from our standpoint," said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team. "The threat is certainly somewhat less than it was the last two days."
In preparation for Endeavour's fiery descent through the atmosphere, the astronauts surveyed the wings and nose, using a laser-tipped boom that hunted for possible micrometeorite damage. They did not maneuver the 100-foot robotic arm and extension boom under the shuttle's gouged belly Sunday; engineers have already ascertained that the small but deep gouge, caused by launch debris, poses no danger.
The astronauts had scanned the wings and nose the day after Endeavour's Aug. 8 liftoff, looking for any evidence of fuel-tank foam strikes or other launch damage.
On Sunday, they were searching for any holes or cracks that might have occurred while the shuttle was docked to the space station.