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Discovery brings home Alpha crew

Discovery touches down in Florida on Wednesday
Discovery touches down in Florida on Wednesday  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Space shuttle Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday, completing a nearly 12-day mission to deliver a new crew to the international space station and to return the crew that had served almost six months on the orbiting outpost.

The returning space station residents, who had been on Alpha for 4 months, returned to Earth a little tired and off-balance, but in good shape overall.

"I feel like I've run a marathon," crewmember Jim Voss said. "I had a wonderful experience aboard the space station ... But after doing something like that, it's always good to be home."

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NASA waived the first landing opportunity for the shuttle because of clouds near the shuttle landing facility on Florida's east coast. Discovery commander Scott Horowitz made an extra lap around the planet before firing the shuttle's braking rockets, sending the orbiter plunging back to Earth.

Discovery touched down at 2:23 p.m. EDT.

"Welcome to all of you, and especially Yury, Susan and Jim. It's great to have you back on Earth," said astronaut Ken Cockrell at Mission Control after Discovery rolled to a stop.

During its flight, the shuttle delivered a new crew, called Expedition Three, to space station Alpha and picked up Expedition Two crewmembers -- Americans Voss and Susan Helms and Russian Yury Usachev. The three had spent almost six months aboard the orbiting outpost.

Usachev called the international space station "a good chance for all partners to try to understand each other better."  

"We were really happy to take part in delivering Expedition Three to orbit and they're having a great mission right now up there on the space station," Horowitz told reporters after inspecting Discovery with fellow shuttle crewmembers Rick Sturckow, Dan Barry and Pat Forrester.

"Expedition Two is doing really great. In fact, we're surprised some of them looked like they were doing a little better than us when we got off the vehicle today," he said. "They're real troopers."

The returning Alphanauts can expect about 45 days of physical therapy to regain muscle and bone strength lost during their weightless flight, the second longest in NASA history.

Usachev has experience dealing with the consequences of a long-term stay in space, having spent two long-duration missions on the retired Russian space station Mir. Including his latest mission, he has spent 553 cumulative days in orbit, the fifth highest total in history.

Only fellow cosmonauts have stayed in space longer, including the long-duration champion, Sergey Avdeyev, who on three missions spent 747 days off the planet.

"Compared to my previous flight, it's much better," Usachev said. "Maybe it's because we exercise more."

Space station Alpha
Space station Alpha  

The crew used specialized exercise equipment onboard Alpha.

"We have a pretty good program for keeping ourselves in good shape. We have two bicycles, a treadmill and an exercise device that simulates weightlifting," Voss told CNN in an interview Tuesday.

The third Alpha crew, composed of U.S. skipper Frank Culbertson and Russians Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, will spend four months aboard the modular complex.

Early Wednesday, a Russian Progress supply ship attached to Alpha undocked to make room for a new ship arriving on Thursday with supplies for the station. The old ship was allowed to fall back to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere.

A project of the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan, space station Alpha could cost $100 billion when completed later this decade.

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