CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Gliding through the darkness, space shuttle Atlantis' astronauts returned to Earth on Monday amid high praise for their successful overhaul of the international space station.

The seven crew members were back only moments when the accolades began rolling in.

``Just a super mission,'' congratulated Mission Control.

Atlantis landed in the predawn hours, making only the 14th touchdown in darkness in space shuttle history. The crosswind was well within safety limits, despite NASA's earlier concerns.

``I know it's bad hours for the arrival, but we are certainly glad to be back home,'' said shuttle commander James Halsell Jr.

The space station was soaring over the North Atlantic when Atlantis touched down on the floodlighted runway. All four newly installed batteries were working fine aboard the space station and providing full electrical power, and the other repaired equipment was in good shape, too.

The space shuttle fared less well.

Atlantis came back with scratches and dents on its wings, the apparent result of ice that broke off the chilled external fuel tank during liftoff on May 19. The damage to the thermal tiles on the underside of the wings was noticed when NASA reviewed video of the launch.

Halsell said the scrapes turned out to be ``nothing extraordinary,'' even though Mission Control had him take special precautions in preparing for the ride down through the atmosphere.

Besides replacing bad batteries on the space station, the six Americans and one Russian furnished the 1 1/2-year-old complex with a new antenna, construction crane, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and fans. They also boosted the complex into an orbit more than 230 miles high, 30 miles higher than before, and proved that with proper ventilation, it's a safe place to work. Previous visitors had been sickened by stale air.

Halsell said it was sometimes stressful trying to squeeze everything into the six days that the spacecraft were docked. But he was pleased ``to achieve what I think is a resounding success and something of a resurgence for the international space station program.''

Now it's up to the Russians.

Their long-delayed service module is supposed to lift off from Kazakstan aboard an unmanned Proton rocket in July. Part propulsion tug and part crew quarters, the module is more than two years late because of Russia's money crunch and rocket failures.

Because two Proton launches ended in explosions last year, NASA wants to wait until a few more rockets fly before committing to the all-important service module flight.

Although the service module looks ready, ``until it goes up, we won't know,'' said NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. NASA is working on modules that could take its place, just in case.

The service module must be attached to the space station before crews can move in and NASA's prized lab module can link up.

Cosmonaut Yuri Usachev and astronauts Susan Helms and James Voss said the repair mission provided great training for their five-month space station stint next year.

``It was motivational for us to be there as well,'' Voss said.

That's good, because the three will be back in training in just two short weeks.

``I'm going to probably need about a year to get ready for a bigger, better station,'' Helms said. ``I'm anxious to go back as soon as I can, but I also need to go back prepared.''

Atlantis, meanwhile, will be readied for NASA's next space station visit, in September.


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