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'Discovery is home'

Shuttle completes first mission since loss of Columbia

By Thom Patterson




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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Kennedy Space Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- The space shuttle Discovery touched down Tuesday morning, completing NASA's first shuttle mission since Columbia broke apart during re-entry in February 2003.

The shuttle landed at 5:11 a.m. (8:11 ET) at NASA's secondary landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

As commander Eileen Collins brought the orbiter to a stop on runway 22, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield stated, "Discovery is home."

"Congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight," mission control radioed the crew. "Welcome home friends."

"We're happy to be back," Collins said.

"We brought Discovery back in great shape," she said later after getting a look around the spacecraft.

She thanked all the people who worked on the mission calling it "fantastic."

It was the 50th shuttle landing at Edwards.

With Discovery safely back on Earth, NASA officials breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"It's a good day to be us," program manager Bill Parsons said at a Kennedy Space Center news conference.

"There isn't any of this that is easy ... Eileen made it look like a cake walk," associate administrator Mike Readdy said.

Bad weather

Earlier Tuesday NASA waved off its two opportunities for Discovery to land at its primary site at Kennedy Space Center because of stormy weather off the Florida coast.

Weather conditions at Edwards included clear skies and light winds, "excellent conditions for a space shuttle landing," NASA said.

"How do you feel about a beautiful clear night with a breeze down the runway in the high desert of California?" mission control radioed Collins.

"We are ready for whatever we need to do," Collins said.

Discovery's path to Edwards began with the spacecraft firing its engines over the Indian Ocean to slow it enough to re-enter Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific.

Shuttle pilot James Kelly steered Discovery on a trajectory leading it near Los Angeles and Oxnard, California, before touch down.

NASA officials vowed to land the orbiter Tuesday at one of three locations after weather conditions forced them to scrub the shuttle's scheduled return a day earlier. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida was NASA's first choice. Edwards their second and White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico their third.

Officials would have preferred to land at Kennedy Space Center to avoid the cost and inconvenience of flying the shuttle back to its launch site from the alternative landing strips.

Discovery will stay in California for nine or 10 days before being ferried back to Florida on the back of a specially designed aircraft, a NASA official said Tuesday.

Return to flight

Tuesday's landing capped a 14-day mission largely designed to improve safety on future shuttle journeys, although the program has been suspended while NASA investigates its failure to solve the problem of foam falling from the shuttle's external liquid fuel tank during launch.

Video from the July 26 launch showed debris falling from the fuel tank, but NASA said it did not appear to have struck the orbiter.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said Tuesday he didn't want to guess on when the next shuttle, Atlantis, would launch but said the agency would try hard to get back into space by the end of the year.

"We have a construction project [international space station] we are working on and we need the shuttle to do it ... but we are not going to go until we are ready to go," Griffin said.

Once in space, Discovery's crew used cameras to scrutinize the craft's exterior for possible damage that might pose a threat during re-entry.

The shuttle spent most of the mission docked to the space station, delivering much-needed supplies and performing maintenance on the outpost.

Astronaut Steve Robinson performed an unprecedented shuttle repair mission by plucking two pieces of filler material protruding between tiles on Discovery's underside. NASA wanted them removed to ensure they wouldn't overheat, damaging Discovery's belly during re-entry.

From his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush congratulated the crew for a successful mission.

"It was a great achievement. It was important for NASA as it regains the confidence of the American people and begins to transition to the new mission we've set out for NASA," the president said.

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