NASA forecasters are calling for Chamber-of-Commerce weather for the planned landing early Thursday of the nation's 135th and final shuttle flight -- an operation that is slated to end with touch down at Kennedy Space Center about 40 minutes before sunrise.
The four astronauts flying Atlantis are scheduled to glide onto Runway 15 at 5:56 a.m. Thursday. The crew will have a second opportunity to land at 7:33 a.m. NASA officials have been fielding questions about the possibility of delaying until the second opportunity so that the landing takes place in daylight.
That's not in the cards. Assuming the forecast holds up and there are no technical problems, NASA Entry Flight Director Tony Ceccacci will bring the shuttle and its crew home as scheduled.
"If you have a good opportunity, you are going to take it, day or night," he said.
Atlantis has enough electrical power-generating capability to remain in space until Saturday. But for all practical purposes, NASA wants the shuttle to be safely on the ground by Friday at the latest.
Ceccacci doesn't want to pass up a good opportunity to land only to have weather sour, or technical problems crop up. He doesn't want to take a chance that the crew might be endangered.
Neither of the shuttle's two back-up landing sites -- Edwards Air Force Base in California and White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico -- will be staffed on Thursday. Both Edwards and White Sands would be brought up to support landing opportunities on Friday, if need be.