CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Space shuttle Discovery and its crew of six returned to Earth through thick clouds today, ending an impressive mission that put NASA s space program back on a solid, safer course.
Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center at 9:14 a.m. in only the second shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Welcome back, Discovery, and congratulations on a great mission, Mission Control told shuttle commander Steven Lindsey after Discovery rolled to a stop.
It was a great mission, a really great mission, and enjoyed the entry and the landing, Lindsey replied.
The smooth landing was sure to leave NASA officials jubilant, after conquering the chronic threat of foam chunks that break off the external fuel tank during launch still a problem, but not a serious one in this mission.
The shuttle came in from the south, swooping over the Pacific, Yucatan Peninsula, Gulf of Mexico and across Florida to cap a 5.3 million-mile journey that began on the Fourth of July.
A last-minute buildup of clouds prompted NASA to switch the shuttle s direction for landing. By the time Discovery approached, it was so cloudy, Lindsey couldn t spot the runway until about a minute before landing.
At touchdown, hoots and whistles came from the few hundred astronauts relatives and space center workers at the runway.
NASA officials had been certain going into Monday s landing that Discovery s heat shield was intact and capable of protecting the spaceship during the fiery re-entry.
Repeated inspections of the ship s thermal skin in orbit had given everyone confidence. Unlike on Discovery s flight a year ago, the external fuel tank shed little foam during liftoff. That flight was the shuttle s first after the Columbia disaster, when a chunk of falling foam insulation doomed the shuttle.
Officials acknowledged re-entry was, along with the launch, the most dangerous phase of the mission and nothing could be taken for granted until Discovery was safely back from it s 13-day trip to the international space station. Toward that end, Discovery s astronauts and flight controllers kept close watch on a slightly leaking power unit.
NASA did not know whether harmless nitrogen gas or flammable hydrazine was dripping from the auxiliary power unit, one of three needed to drive Discovery s hydraulic landing systems. The leak was small and didn t grow during descent, and the unit operated properly.
Discovery sported a new, tougher type of landing gear tire for improving safety. In another shuttle first, an on-board GPS receiver helped guide Discovery down to the 3-mile-long landing strip.
It was the first shuttle landing at Kennedy in nearly four years. Columbia never made it back in February 2003 it shattered over Texas and Discovery had to take a weather detour to California last summer.
Some at NASA, including the chief engineer and NASA s top safety officer, wanted to put off the latest mission until further repairs could be made to a particularly vulnerable area of the fuel tank. But NASA Administrator Michael Griffin opted to press ahead with what turned out to be the space agency s first Independence Day launch.
The shuttle carried up seven astronauts, but departed the space station on Saturday with six Lindsey, co-pilot Mark Kelly, Michael Possum, Piers Sellers, Lisa Now and Stephanie Wilson. German astronaut Thomas Retire was left behind for a half-year stay, joining two other men there and boosting the station s crew size to three.
The Discovery crew conducted three spacewalks, one of them to test shuttle patching techniques, and used a 100-foot inspection crane to check the shuttle s entire thermal armor for any damage from launch or orbital debris. The rocketship turned out to be the cleanest seen in orbit from a thermal perspective, officials said.
The astronauts also demonstrated that the boom could function as a work platform for spacewalkers and delivered several thousand pounds of supplies to the space station, still in need of restocking because of the 2 -year grounding of the shuttle fleet after Columbia s demise.
By fixing a broken rail car on the outside of the space station, the astronauts paved the way for space station construction to resume in earnest with the next shuttle flight.
Atlantis is scheduled to blast off as early as Aug. 27. Unlike Discovery s missions, which focused primarily on the flight test aspects, the Atlantis crew will haul up a major space station piece a building-block beam and attach it to the orbiting outpost.
The station is just half finished, eight years after the first piece went up. NASA wants it completed by the time the three remaining shuttles are retired in 2010, as per President Bush s mandate, to make way for a new spaceship capable of carrying astronauts to the moon.
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