CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Space shuttle Endeavour returned to Earth safely Tuesday, ending a nearly two-week orbital drama that centered on a deep gouge in the shuttle's belly and an early homecoming prompted by a hurricane.
The shuttle swooped out of the partly cloudy sky and touched down on the runway at 12:32 p.m. as the astronauts' families cheered.
"Congratulations. Welcome home. You've given a new meaning to higher education," Mission Control told the crew, which included former teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan. Morgan had been Christa McAuliffe's backup for the doomed 1986 Challenger flight.
The main concern for much of Endeavour's mission was the 3½-inch-long gouge to the shuttle's protective tiles caused by falling debris during liftoff.
NASA officials quickly gathered under Endeavour, still parked on the runway, pointing and gazing up at the gouged tiles. At the same time, cameras focused on the damage, offering detailed close-up views.
"On first glance here, there doesn't appear to be much damage from the heat of re-entry there," said NASA spokesman George Diller.
Over the past few days and right up until landing, NASA had stressed that the in Endeavour's belly would not endanger the shuttle during its landing, but it did not want the shuttle to suffer any structural damage that might require lengthy repairs.
There was zero chance of a Columbia-style disaster this time, NASA managers insisted, although they acknowledged re-entry was always risky. In 2003, a chunk of fly-away foam had damaged the shuttle Columbia's wing, allowing hot gases to seep in during the re-entry and tear the shuttle apart.
The much smaller damaged area on Endeavour was also subjected to 2,000-degree temperatures during the hottest part of atmospheric re-entry, but engineers were convinced after a week of thermal analyses and tests that the spacecraft would hold up.
With its pilots reporting no problems, Endeavour zoomed over the South Pacific, crossed Central America and Cuba, then headed up the Florida peninsula into Kennedy Space Center. Its trip spanned 13 days and 5.3 million miles.
The shuttle wasn't supposed to return until Wednesday, but mission managers decided to cut its space station visit short because of Hurricane Dean. At the time, NASA was uncertain if Dean would veer toward Texas and threaten Houston, home to Mission Control. Even though forecasters later put Houston out of harm's way, NASA held to a Tuesday landing.
A half-hour after landing, Mission Control jokingly asked commander Scott Kelly if he wanted to turn the shuttle around and "set up for another quick one."
"Give us the weekend off and maybe next Monday," Kelly replied.
During Endeavour's liftoff on Aug. 8, a piece of foam insulation or ice had broken off a bracket on the external fuel tank, fell onto a strut lower on the tank and then bounced into the shuttle, gashing its tiles.
The astronauts inspected the especially vulnerable areas Sunday, after undocking from the international space station. NASA on Monday cleared Endeavour for landing after engineers finished evaluating the latest laser images of the shuttle's wings and nose and concluded there were no holes or cracks from micrometeorites or space junk.
Brackets have shed debris in launches since Columbia, but it wasn't until Endeavour's flight that such debris caused noticeable damage again. The damage triggered a weeklong analyses that involved hundreds of engineers and thousands of hours of supercomputer simulations.
NASA does not plan to launch another space shuttle until the problem is solved. For now, Discovery is supposed to lift off in late October.
While in orbit, the astronauts attached a new truss segment to the space station and replaced a failed gyroscope needed for keeping the outpost headed in the right direction. They also delivered 5,000 pounds of supplies.
The crew completed four spacewalks, two of which were cut short. One was halted after a spacewalking astronaut noticed a cut in his glove. The other was abbreviated to give the crew enough time to prepare for an early departure from the space station.
Among those pacing and holding their breath during the landing was June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger's commander. She watched the landing on TV at her home in Tennessee, through tears of joy and relief.
"I am so proud and happy for the entire crew, but especially for Barbara. We love her," Scobee Rodgers said.
Scobee Rodgers took part in one of Morgan's space-teaching sessions, gathering with children at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Va. She is the founding chairman of the Challenger Center's board.
The rest of the Endeavour crew included pilot Charles Hobaugh and mission specialists Alvin Drew, Tracy Caldwell, Dave Williams and Rick Mastracchio.