AP Aerospace WriterCAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Space shuttle Endeavour returned to Earth under heavy security Monday, bringing home a crew that watched from the space station as the planet was transformed by terrorism and war.
The shuttle swooped through thick clouds and touched down at 12:55 p.m., right on time.
It was a triumphant and long-awaited homecoming for the international space station's former commander, Frank Culbertson, and his crewmates, Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin. The men spent 129 days in orbit, circled Earth more than 2,000 times and logged 53 million miles -- more than half the distance between the Earth and the sun.
"We're very grateful to be home for Christmas," Culbertson radioed from Endeavour.
"Welcome back to Earth. We're happy to have you back," Mission Control replied.
Culbertson's wife, Rebecca, and five children were on hand for his return after four months. The wives of Dezhurov and Tyurin also were at the landing strip, but not their daughters, who remained home in Russia.
The clouds over the site had threatened earlier in the day to delay Endeavour's return, but forecasters assured NASA there would be no rain, and shuttle commander Dominic Gorie was radioed to bring the shuttle home. Raindrops could damage the spacecraft's insulating tiles.
Culbertson and his crew were in orbit when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened and could see from 250 miles up the smoke rising from the devastation at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"That was a horrible thing to see from space, to know that terrible things were happening on Earth like that and we were so far away from our own families," Culbertson said over the weekend.
The three men arrived at space station Alpha in August and departed their orbiting home on Saturday. Just like its Dec. 5 launch, Endeavour's landing was under tight security to protect against any terrorist strike. Four attack helicopters flew in formation over the Kennedy Space Center shortly before touchdown.
The shuttle delivered the new space station crew: Russian commander Yuri Onufrienko and Americans Daniel Bursch and Carl Walz. They will remain on the orbiting outpost until mid-May.
While Culbertson and his crewmates looked forward to being reunited with their families and friends after so many months apart, several weeks of rehabilitation also await them.
The three men exercised daily on the space station to maintain their muscles and bones, which weaken in weightlessness.
Culbertson, Dezhurov and Tyurin -- the third team to live at the space station -- installed a Russian docking compartment and conducted scientific research. The four visiting shuttle astronauts, meanwhile, dropped off thousands of pounds of supplies and brought back almost as much weight in trash and old equipment from Alpha.
"The most important thing is that we completed our mission still friends," Culbertson said, "and that's something to say after four months inside a series of modules."
Endeavour also carried thousands of small American flags that will be mounted on certificates and distributed to relatives of the Sept. 11 victims, as well as some of those who survived the attacks. NASA hopes to give out the flags by spring.
NASA's next shuttle flight is set for February, when a crew will be sent up on Columbia to work on the Hubble Space Telescope.
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