CAPE CANAVERAL, NOV. 20 -- Avoiding high winds in California, the shuttle Atlantis swooped to a flawless day-late touchdown today at the Kennedy Space Center to wrap up a secret military flight with the first Florida homecoming in 5 1/2 years.
Atlantis dropped out of a clear blue sky and gracefully glided to a pinpoint landing on the spaceport's three-mile-long runway at 4:43 p.m. EST, kicking up a cloud of swirling blue smoke as the 100-ton ship's main landing gear tires hit the concrete at more than 200 mph.
Moments later, commander Richard Covey, 44, and co-pilot Frank Culbertson, 41, gently brought the $2 billion space freighter to a halt on the centerline of Runway 33, completing a 79-orbit, 2 million-mile flight conducted under a veil of secrecy.
"Welcome home, that sure was a beautiful sight," radioed astronaut Kenneth Bowersox from Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Atlantis's landing marked only the sixth time in 37 flights that a shuttle has landed in Florida and the first time since Discovery glided to a touchdown here April 19, 1985, and blew a tire.
Atlantis's landing originally was scheduled for Monday at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., but high crosswinds in the Mojave Desert forced NASA managers to delay reentry in hopes of better conditions today.
The astronauts prefer the broad, more forgiving runways at Edwards over the relatively narrow concrete strip at the Kennedy Space Center. But when high winds continued at Edwards today and the same conditions were predicted for Wednesday, NASA managers elected to divert Atlantis to Florida.
Presumably left behind in orbit was a top-secret military satellite that has been widely reported to be either a photo-reconnaissance camera platform or an electronic eavesdropping spy station capable of intercepting radio messages.
Covey, an Air Force colonel, Navy Cmdr. Culbertson and their crewmates -- Army Maj. Charles Gemar, 35, Air Force Lt. Col. Carl Meade, 40, and Marine Corps Col. Robert Springer, 48 -- climbed out of the orbiter about 45 minutes after touchdown, smiling and shaking hands with onlookers.
Atlantis appeared to have completed its five-day mission in excellent condition, although results of a detailed inspection were not expected before Wednesday.
Thousands of local residents and tourists lined area beaches and highways near the space center to watch Atlantis's descent, the first of the post-Challenger era at this landing site.
"We never expected to see the shuttle land, but we got it on videotape," said vacationer Steve Grob of Peoria, Ill. "This was almost as good as Disney World."
When Discovery landed here in 1985 in a brisk crosswind, skipper Karol "Bo" Bobko landed more than 20 feet to the left of the runway's centerline and used the shuttle's brakes to steer the craft back to the middle of the landing strip. As the spaceplane rolled to a stop, one of the right-side landing gear brakes locked and a tire blew out.
NASA managers then decided to ban Florida landings until the agency's fleet of orbiters could be equipped with tougher brakes, improved tires, an operational nosewheel steering system and other improvements to enhance flight safety.
New, more heat-resistant carbon brakes have been successfully tested in two post-Challenger landings at Edwards, along with nosewheel steering.
Atlantis is equipped with older beryllium brakes, modified in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster to make them better able to handle the high heating experienced during a shuttle landing.
In addition, the shuttle's main landing gear were equipped with stiffer axles to minimize the amount they bend at touchdown, which can cause brake damage.
With Atlantis back on the ground in apparently good shape, engineers are gearing up to launch the shuttle Columbia Dec. 2 on a 10-day astronomy flight that has been grounded since May 30 by a series of elusive hydrogen fuel leaks.