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US astronaut sets spaceflight record

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June 17

HOUSTON - Atlantis was cleared Saturday to return to Earth this coming week after the space shuttle's heat shield was judged capable of surviving the intense heat of re-entry, and a US astronaut reached a milestone with the longest single spaceflight by any woman.

Atlantis is set to land at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday, although NASA officials were still deciding whether to keep the shuttle at the international space station for an extra day because of a failure of computers that control the station's orientation and oxygen production.

Saturday, US astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams set a record for the longest single spaceflight by any woman. Williams, who has lived at the space station since December, surpassed the record of 188 days set by astronaut Shannon Lucid at the Mir space station in 1996.

Williams' former crew mate at the space station, astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, holds the US record for longest continuous stay in space with 215 days. The longest stay in space was 437 days by Russian Valeri Polyakov.

In February, Williams set another record for the most time spent spacewalking by a woman, kicking off a year of achievements by women in space.

In October, US astronaut Peggy Whitson will become the first woman to command the space station. Later that month, Air Force Col. Pam Melroy will become only the second woman to command a space shuttle mission; Eileen Collins was the first, in 1999.

If Whitson and Melroy's time at the space station overlap, it could be the first time there are two female commanders in space at the same time. "The first time we have two female commanders in orbit -- that will be neat," Whitson said.

Almost three decades after the first women joined the astronaut corps in 1978, only 17 of the 94 current active astronauts are women.

On the ground, Mission Control had its first female flight director in 1985. All three space station flight directors working the current Atlantis mission, and the lead shuttle flight director, are women. Women make up about a third of NASA's 33 flight directors, who are responsible for running the spaceflight missions.


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