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Space shuttle finishes 16-day mission
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Space shuttle Endeavour and its seven astronauts safely returned to Earth on Sunday, taking a detour to California after storms hit the main landing strip in Florida.
Endeavour wrapped up a 16-day trip that left the international space station remodeled and capable of housing bigger crews. The shuttle dropped off home improvement equipment, including a new bathroom, kitchenette, exercise machine, sleeping quarters and a recycling system designed to convert astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water.
Endeavour's astronauts also had to put in extra effort to get the urine processor working.
About seven liters of recycled urine and condensation were coming back aboard Endeavour for extensive testing. No one at the space station will drink the recycled water until the equipment runs for 90 days and ground tests ensure it's safe. More samples will be returned on the next shuttle flight.
The shuttle crew also conducted four spacewalks to clear metal shavings from a solar wing rotary joint at the space station. The joint had been jammed for more than a year and hampered energy production at the orbiting outpost.
Initial tests indicated the repairs on the joint were successful.
The space station additions -- and a few more scheduled to go up on the next shuttle flight in February -- should enable NASA to double the size of the space station crew by June.
On Sunday, NASA ordered the detour to California after dangerously high wind and a stormy sky prevented a Florida landing.
"Welcome back. That was a great way to finish a fantastic flight," Mission Control radioed.
"And we're happy to be here in California," shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson replied.
Congratulations also came down from the space station. "Wow," said skipper Mike Fincke, who watched the landing broadcast live.
Returning home from a six-month mission was former space station resident Gregory Chamitoff, who had rocketed away from the planet at the end of May.
The space shuttle's journey, short by comparison, spanned 6.6 million miles and 250 orbits of Earth.
After landing, the astronauts inspected the shuttle's underbelly. Accompanied by three crew members, Ferguson spoke briefly on the tarmac. He said Endeavour "fared entry pretty well" and called the mission extremely successful.
He noted that Chamitoff wasn't present because it takes longer for a person who has been in space so long to reacclimatize to gravity, and said the other two astronauts -- Stefanyshyn-Piper and Donald Pettit -- were just keeping an eye on him.
"The crew members who are not with us are doing just fine," he said.
NASA always prefers to land the space shuttles at their home base in Florida. It takes about a week and costs $1.8 million to transport a shuttle from California to Florida, atop a modified jumbo jet.
The astronauts also had been rooting for a Florida touchdown; that's where their families were waiting.
As Endeavour soared over Houston, home to Mission Control, Ferguson could see all the bad weather in Florida.
"I think you made a good call," he radioed.
It was the first space shuttle landing at Edwards in more than a year. When Endeavour hurtled over metropolitan Los Angeles, firefighters responded to a report of an explosion that turned out to have been the spacecraft's signature sonic booms.
Ferguson landed on a temporary runway that's shorter and more narrow than the Kennedy landing strip. Edwards' main runway -- which parallels the temporary one -- just underwent maintenance and upgrades, and has yet to be equipped with all the necessary navigation equipment.
NASA officials said both Ferguson and his co-pilot, Eric Boe, had practiced on the temporary runway in training aircraft.
Endeavour's crew members were expected to be reunited with their families on Monday in Houston.
Early Sunday morning, a Russian supply ship arrived at the space station with Christmas presents, food, clothes and other items.
AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this report from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
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