US space shuttle Endeavour landed safely back on Earth Tuesday after a two-week mission to the orbiting International Space Station.
The Endeavour sailed back to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida amid blue skies after NASA cut short its missions by a day, fearing that the mission control center in Houston, Texas, could be hit by Hurricane Dean.
The shuttle's wheels touched the ground at Cape Canaveral at 12:32 pm (1632 GMT), ending a 13-day mission for its five-man, two-woman crew, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.
"Congratulations, Endeavour, welcome home," said astronaut Chris Ferguson at mission control in Houston.
"You have given a new meaning to higher education," Fergueson joked, referring to Endeavour astronaut Barbara Morgan, the first teacher in space. Morgan's mission came 21 years after Christie McAuliffe, the first 'educator astronaut,' perished in the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger.
Endeavour sustained damage shortly after taking off on August 8 when a piece of foam that broke off the external fuel tank, possibly accompanied by some ice, hit the belly near the landing gear hatch 58 seconds after liftoff, leaving a small gash.
Safety has been a big concern on space missions since 2003 when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry due to a damaged thermal protection system. All seven astronauts died and missions were put on hold for two and a half years.
Astronauts inspected the damage during Endeavour's stay at the space station and NASA, after long deliberation, decided that it was not necessary to do risky repairs in space.
NASA will not launch the next two shuttles planned in October and December of this year without first fixing the source of the foam problem, even if that means delaying the launches, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.
Landing had initially been set for Wednesday, but NASA rescheduled it for Tuesday fearing that its control center in Houston, Texas may have to be evacuated if it were grazed by Hurricane Dean, a category five storm which struck Mexico early Tuesday but missed Texas altogether.
The five-man, two-woman crew awoke at 4:36 am (0836 GMT), leaving around four hours for final preparations before the shuttle attempts re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
Mission control played the Simon and Garfunkel song "Homeward Bound," to wake up the astronauts.
"Good morning Endeavour, and the music this morning was set for all of you by all of your family in anticipation of a happy landing day," said astronaut Shannon Lucid from the controls at Johnson Space Center.
"Thank you, Shannon," responded Kelly. "Although it has been a short two weeks we accomplished a lot and we feel very much like coming home today."
The Endeavour and ISS crews finished a shortened, fourth spacewalk on Saturday, before the shuttle with its crew of seven undocked from the ISS on Sunday.
The crew put out a robotic arm with a high-definition camera and laser on the end to inspect the heat shield on Endeavour's nose and wings for possible damage from meteors and other floating space debris.
In nine days at the space station, Endeavour crew and a US astronaut posted at the ISS, Clayton Anderson, made four spacewalks, installing a mechanical truss on the orbiting laboratory and fixing one of the gyroscopes that keeps it stable. They also delivered 2.7 tonnes of supplies.
It was NASA's second mission of the year, and came after a series of embarrassing scandals including an astronaut charged with plotting against a love rival and reports of others turning up drunk for flights.