Astronauts head home after Space Station makeover

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The Independent US

Astronauts from the space shuttle Atlantis were set to return to Earth today after spending five days fitting out the new International Space Station for longer-term habitation.

Astronauts from the space shuttle Atlantis were set to return to Earth today after spending five days fitting out the new International Space Station for longer-term habitation.

The first of the alternating Russian and American teams that will keep the space station permanently manned is set to arrive in early November.

The seven-member Atlantis crew brought 2 tonnes of equipment including a toilet, a food- warmer and a medicine cabinet as well as a treadmill and other exercise equipment. (Long-stay astronauts have to exercise to prevent their muscles from wasting in the weightless conditions.)

The facilities were installed in the zvezda module, which was successfully attached to the space station in July. As well as equipping the module's residential quarters, the Atlantis crew repaired the station's power system, installed oxygen generators and linked up a two-way video conferencing system. The operation went so well that the pilot, Scott Altman, asked for extra things to do. "As a team, we've been able to get everything done that we set out to do." he said.

But as they closed the 12 hatches on the space station yesterday and made ready to depart, there were fears that their return to Earth - expected on Wednesday - could be delayed or complicated by a hurricane threatening Florida's Gulf Coast. The Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, where the shuttle is due to land, was placed under a hurricane alert yesterday morning.

Hurricane Gordon was upgraded from a tropical storm late on Saturday. Initially it had been expected to lose its strength before reaching Florida's Atlantic coast, but meteorologists say its path remains unpredictable.

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