Touchdown! Discovery Lands Safely in California

This story was updated at 9:12 a.m. EDT.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - After one thwarted landing attempt and two missed passes here Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth Tuesday as their spacecraft touched down on the desert runway of Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Discovery landed at 8:11:22 a.m. EDT (1211:22 GMT) after a successful 14-day flight that marked NASA's first shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster.

"Houston, Discovery, wheels are down," Discovery's STS-114 commander Eileen Collins said, as applause broke out among NASA employees here at KSC's Complex 39. "We're all happy to be back again."

"Welcome home, Discovery," astronaut Ken Ham, serving as spacecraft communicator, told the crew.

The landing ended an almost 5.8-million mile trek that carried Discovery's astronauts around the Earth 219 times. During its STS-114 mission, Discovery astronauts tested new orbital inspection and repair methods, and restocked the International Space Station (ISS).

"It's just been a wild ride," Discovery's STS-114 commander Eileen Collins told flight controllers during the spaceflight. "We've finally been able to put the icing on the cake with this mission."

Tuesday's landing was the second time this week that Collins and her crew donned their orange pressure suits for reentry. An initial attempt to land in the pre-dawn hours Monday was called off after low clouds and potential rain showers prevented the orbiter from taking advantage of two landing opportunities. The delay gave the STS-114 astronauts an extra day in space, which they spent looking out the window, the astronauts said.

"The crew of STS-114 thanks you for a great day off," mission specialist Stephen Robinson told flight controllers Monday.

Landing at the Mojave Desert-based Edwards Air Force Base, where shuttle arrivals are overseen by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, was the second choice after KSC for STS-114 ascent/entry flight director Leroy Cain.

But the weather forecast at Edwards was better than at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility, where rain showers and lightening prevented Discovery from making either of its two Florida landing opportunities Tuesday. It was about 5:03 a.m. EDT (0912 GMT) when flight controllers made decision to press for a landing on the concrete Runway 22 at Edwards.

"Roger, we've been thinking about Edwards today," Collins said after hearing the news.

Discovery's landing came just over an hour after the shuttle fired its Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines at 7:06 a.m. EDT (1106 GMT) while flying over the western Indian Ocean near Madagascar. About 40 minutes after firing its engines, the shuttle hit the edge of the Earth's atmosphere while flying 17,500 miles per hour over the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

By 8:12 a.m. EDT, the shuttle touched down, though it was still about 53 minutes before dawn at Edwards Air Force Base, shuttle officials said.

Returning to Earth

Collins and Discovery pilot James Kelly guided the 100-ton Discovery orbiter back to Earth from the shuttle's flight deck, where Robinson - also serving as flight engineer - and mission specialist Andrew Thomas also sat.

"For the first time, I expect to have a window seat," Thomas said before landing, adding that he returned to Earth on three previous shuttle flights tucked below in the middeck.

Making the descent in Discovery's middeck Tuesday were STS-114 mission specialists Wendy Lawrence, Charles Camarda and Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

"I want to see my family," Camarda said before landing. "We all want to get a great shower, get cleaned up and have a great dinner."

Discovery's STS-114 mission is NASA's first shuttle flight since the Columbia tragedy that destroyed one orbiter and killed seven astronauts. Columbia broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, raining debris across the region. Its STS-107 astronaut crew did not survive.

"I don't think there is an undue amount of anxiety," astronaut Nicholas Patrick, set to fly aboard Discovery on NASA's STS-116 mission in April 2006, told SPACE.com during the shuttle's landing. "On the one hand, we're all worried because of the past, the last entry. On the other hand, I'm less worried because of all the work we've done, and how careful we've been."

Investigators later pinned the accident damage Columbia sustained at launch, when a 1.67-pound piece of external tank foam struck its left wing and pierced its heat shield. The resulting gouge allowed hot gases into the orbiter's wing during reentry, destroying the vehicle and killing its crew.

Discovery passed just north of Los Angeles as it approached its Edwards Air Force Base landing site.

Cain said flight planners were able to tweak the Discovery's flight plan to avoid flying over the heavily-populated areas of the Los Angeles Basin. NASA has taken a renewed interest in public safety concerns regarding shuttle flights over populated after observing the amount of debris strewn across multiple states when Columbia broke apart in 2003.

After more than two and a half years and $1.4 billion spent to enhance shuttle flight safety and prevent dangerous foam loss from external tanks at liftoff, NASA launched Discovery on July 26 only to observe a 0.9-pound foam chunk fall from the orbiter's external tank. That foam chunk did not strike the orbiter, but joined three other pieces too large to meet NASA's new safety standards which fell during the launch. Shuttle officials have suspended future orbiter flights until the problem is solved.

"Anyone who tells is they're not disappointed in that, I think, is not being truthful," astronaut Mark Polansky, who will command Discovery's STS-116 mission, said of the delay. "But you temper that disappointment with the pride in the fact that you're with an agency that can say, 'Hey, we had something go wrong.' Unfortunately, that's the nature of our business...sending people into space is not easy."

While NASA lamented its external tank foam woes, shuttle officials and astronauts lauded the STS-114 spaceflight, which accomplished about every major task mission managers hoped to achieve.

"I wish I could come back up here whenever I wanted," Collins said.

Busy flight

During their flight, the Discovery astronauts tested new tools and repair methods devised in direct response to the Columbia accident. They scanned their shuttle's heat shield using a laser camera-tipped 50-foot (15-meter) boom tacked to the end of Discovery's robotic arm, and performed an orbital backflip while docking at the space station where the Expedition 11 crew took high-resolution photographs of the orbiter's tile-covered belly.

"I was surprised at how quickly and smoothly the use of the boom went," said Patrick, who will guide the robot-arm mounted boom on STS-116.

The STS-114 astronauts also delivered about six tons of new equipment, suppliers and spare parts to the ISS on NASA's first shuttle re-supply mission to the station since December 2002 - and returned about three tons of trash, unneeded or broken equipment. The space station has relied on Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft to deliver new crews and supplies to the ISS since the Columbia accident.

"This has been my fourth flight and by far it's been the busiest flight I've ever been on," said Lawrence, who oversaw the cargo transfer, before landing. "There are thousands of people on the ground who made this mission successful. The real tribute goes to those folks on the ground who've helped us to be really successful on orbit."

STS-114 spacewalkers Robinson and Noguchi staged three spacewalks from Discovery's airlock during their time docked at the ISS. During those orbital outings, the astronauts tested repair techniques for damaged tiles and heat-resistant panels, replaced a failed gyroscope for the ISS and added a spare parts platform to the exterior of the orbital laboratory. Robinson also conducted the first-ever repair during the final spacewalk, when Lawrence and Kelly used the station's robotic arm to position him under Discovery's belly to remove two gap-fillers sticking out from between the orbiter's heat-resistant tiles.

Discovery's landing at Edwards Air Force Base marked the 50th time a shuttle touched down at the site, where it is overseen by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, and the conclusion of NASA's 114th shuttle flight. It was the sixth night landing for a shuttle - which occur at least 15 minutes before sunrise - at the Mojave Desert facility.

Discovery is the first shuttle to land at Edwards since June 2002, when the Endeavour touched down after STS-111.

It will take Discovery at least a week - and cost about $1 million - to make the trip from Edwards to KSC atop NASA's 747 carrier jet, shuttle officials said, adding that it is unclear how the extra time will affect plans to launch the next return to flight mission. NASA's STS-121 test flight aboard Atlantis is slated to launch no earlier than Sept. 22, but Discovery must be readied to serve as a rescue craft should Atlantis suffer extensive damage during the planned flight, they added.

But for Discovery's crew, today's landing marked the end of a successful - and busy - two-week mission and more than two years of training to return NASA's shuttle program to flight.

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