National Geographic News
The NASA space shuttle Discovery made a smooth landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California early this morning. The shuttle's peaceful return at 5:11 a.m. PT marked the end of a 14-day mission highlighted by a dramatic spacewalk to repair minor, but potentially grave, flaws in the spacecraft's protective heat shielding.
The return of Discovery, originally scheduled to land yesterday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, was delayed because of poor weather. Continued thunderstorms this morning prompted NASA to divert the shuttle to the California air base.
"Congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight," Mission Control radioed the seven-member crew as Discovery rolled to a stop this morning in the predawn darkness in the Mojave Desert. "Welcome home, friends."
Discovery was the first shuttle to return to orbit after Columbia broke apart during re-entry in 2003, killing its entire crew and casting doubt on the future of manned space flight.
The Discovery crew spent nine days on the space station fixing equipment, restocking supplies, and hauling away two and a half years' worth of trash. The crew also conducted a number of test maneuvers while in orbit to evaluate new safety protocols, including spinning the shuttle end over end. This "backflip" allowed the space station occupants to photograph all sides of the craft and report any signs of damage.
Despite the shuttle's successful return, a number of safety glitches during the mission convinced NASA to once again ground the space fleet. During the July 26 liftoff, a one-pound (half-kilogram) chunk of foam insulation broke from the shuttle's redesigned fuel tank. The debris missed the shuttle, but offered proof that NASA has yet to fix the same problem that triggered the Columbia disaster.
In addition, astronaut Stephen Robinson made the first ever in-flight repair of a shuttle's thermal shielding when strips of fabric slipped out from underneath the shuttle's thermal tiles and were left dangling off Discovery's underside. NASA experts feared the loose material could cause dangerous overheating on reentry.
NASA administrators remain optimistic that the lessons learned from Discovery will not keep flight crews on the ground for long.
"I hope this shows people that we're coming back," NASA spaceflight chief Bill Readdy told the Associated Press following touchdown. "We've got some more work to do. We know what we need to do and we'll do it."
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