CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Endeavour swooped through thick afternoon clouds Monday, bringing the crew as well as an American and two Russians who were aboard the international space station safely back to Earth.
"The landing was so smooth I wasn't even sure we touched down yet," said Cape Girardeau County native Linda Godwin. "From the beginning to the end it was an incredible experience. It was over a little too soon."
Godwin was loadmaster of the shuttle mission, responsible for loading 4,900 pounds of clothing, food, scientific experiments and other supplies into the space station. Another 4,100 pounds of unneeded equipment, including dirty clothing, completed experiments, packing foam and even a trumpet, were returned to Earth.
At one point Mission Control kidded with Dr. Godwin that she should make sure that the returning crewmembers were carefully packed with shipping foam for protection on the way home.
"It's nice to come back here and land with all of the folks who worked so hard to get us launched," Godwin said shortly after landing. "It seems like just a few short days ago."
Only about 100 guests lined the runway for the space shuttle's return, namely family members and top NASA officials. The crowd was one-tenth the usual size because of stepped-up security; most Kennedy Space Center employees were turned away.
Four helicopters carrying armed personnel flew in formation over the space center. The shuttle's launch 12 days earlier also was surrounded by heavy security to guard against terrorist attack.
Astronaut Frank Culbertson and cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin rocketed into orbit on Aug. 10 and watched in horror from 250 miles up one month later as thick, gray smoke billowed from the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The space station's cameras captured images of the trade center that were relayed by NASA to news agencies around the world.
As a high-flying show of patriotism, Endeavour carried more than 6,000 American flags to the space station and back. The flags will be mounted on certificates and distributed to families of those killed Sept. 11, as well as to some survivors of the tragedy.
Weeks of rehabilitation
Shuttle commander Dominic Gorie said Culbertson, Dezhurov and Tyurin came back with "smiles on their faces" and were strong enough to walk off the space shuttle.
"To be able to walk off on your own two feet is a testament to what those guys did on orbit on their exercise program," Gorie said.
The three men face weeks of rehabilitation, nonetheless, to strengthen their bones and muscles, weakened by weightlessness.
Philip Chien contributed to this report report.