European Space Agency astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy and five NASA astronauts returned to Earth today aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis after a highly successful 11-day atmospheric research mission.
The Shuttle glided to a perfect landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, touching down at 16h33 Central European Time (CET), after bad weather diverted the Shuttle from a planned landing at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The astronauts disembarked from the Shuttle about an hour later.
The flawless California landing marks the end of a mission that has improved our understanding of Earth's precious atmosphere and furthered international cooperation.
European experiments formed an important part of the ATLAS atmospheric laboratory. The Belgian-led SOLCON and French-led SOLSPEC experiments both gathered data on the Sun's energy and its variations. The SOLCON and SOLSPEC instruments were mainly operated remotely from the Belgian Space Remote Operations Centre (BSROC) in Brussels using a telescience system set up by ESA.
Scientists involved in SOLCON say their instrument has worked perfectly during the mission. "The solar constant measurements obtained thus far are consistent with the solar constant data set we deduced during the previous ATLAS missions", said SOLCON Principal Investigator Dr. Dominique Crommelynck.
SOLSPEC readings appear extremely accurate and comparable with those of other instruments flown aboard Atlantis that operate in the same wavelengths. The data will be used to detect trends in the Sun's energy output that affect the atmosphere and climate of our planet. "For SOLSPEC, the Atlas 3 mission is already a great success due to the quality of the measurements which have been carried out and the absence of technical problems", said SOLSPEC Principal Investigator Dr. Gerard O. Thuillier.
During the flight Clervoy participated in interviews with European television and press reporters in the US and Paris, France. On this important mission to study Earth's fragile environment, the beauty of the planet struck Clervoy. He said in an interview : "It's indescribable. It's so beautiful, really magnificent. You could call it the blue beauty. You never get tired of the sunrises and sunsets".
Jean-Francois Clervoy played an important role in the mission, using the Shuttle's robot arm to deploy a German atmospheric research satellite, called CRISTA-SPAS, and conducting other experiments within the Shuttle's cabin. He also tested a special seat that will be used next year when Atlantis docks with the Russian Mir space station. In this seat astronauts and cosmonauts will be able to return to Earth in a reclining position after long-duration Mir flights.
The CRISTA-SPAS satellite was retrieved by the Shuttle's robot arm as planned on 12 November. The Shuttle rendez- voused with the spacecraft using the new approach for the future Shuttle Mir docking mission. The link-up of the Shuttle with Mir next year is of particular significance to ESA because the Shuttle will return with materials science samples from the recently completed EUROMIR 94 mission.
Clervoy is the second ESA astronaut to fly in space as a Shuttle mission specialist. Claude Nicollier was the first, and Maurizio Cheli has completed training at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a mission specialist and is awaiting his first flight.