Space Shuttle Discovery Returns to NASA Spaceport
The space shuttle Discovery lands at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. on Aug. 21, 2005.
Credit: NASA/KSC.

This story was updated at 11:09 a.m. EDT.

The space shuttle Discovery returned to its home spaceport Sunday, landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) after a weekend flight across the country.

A modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet ferried Discovery to KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility at the orbiter's Cape Canaveral, Florida home, touching down at about 9:58 a.m. EDT (1358 GMT) after a 2.5-hour flight from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

"This is a welcome sight for Kennedy Space Center employees to see the vehicle back in town," NASA commentator Bruce Buckingham said during the landing.

Discovery was slated to touchdown at KSC Saturday after a two-day flight from Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert, but weather concerns prompted shuttle officials to postpone the trip, NASA officials said. NASA orbiters cannot fly through rain, which can damage the spacecraft, they added.

Discovery's Florida return is the last leg of a 5.8-million-mile (9.3-million-kilometer) spaceflight that began with launch on July 26. After leaving Edwards Air Force Base on Friday, Discovery and its carrier aircraft stopped briefly at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma to refuel before heading to Barksdale. The cross-country move cost about $1 million, NASA officials have said.

After a 14-day spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS), where the shuttle's STS-114 astronaut crew delivered vital supplies and tested new safety tools and procedures, Discovery landed back on Earth on Aug. 9 at Edwards. Poor weather conditions prevented several landing opportunities at KSC.

"We weren't able to bring their ship back to them," STS-114 mission specialist Stephen Robinson said just after returning to Earth, adding that he intended to be there when Discovery made it home.

Indeed, Robinson was among the engineers and NASA officials who welcomed Discovery back to KSC, NASA officials told SPACE.com.

Discovery's successful spaceflight marked NASA's first shuttle mission since the 2003 loss of seven astronauts aboard the Columbia obiter, which broke apart during reentry. A piece of foam insulation fell from Columbia's external tank during launch and pierced its heat shield along its left wing, leaving it vulnerable to the extreme heat of reentry, investigators found.

Discovery's flight was marred by a foam shedding problem similar to that which doomed Columbia and its STS-107 astronaut crew, though the orbiter returned to Earth safely with a healthy heat shield. NASA officials vowed to solve the foam problem before launching another shuttle mission, but are targeting March 2006 as the earliest an orbiter could fly.

Shuttle workers at NASA's Edwards-based Dryden Flight Research Center spent 10 days preparing Discovery for its cross-country trip. Despite delays due to severe weather and a small glitch attaching a protective cone over the shuttle's engines, the orbiter was installed atop its 747 mothership using NASA's Mate-Demate Device.

Shuttle engineers are now working with a similar device at KSC's landing facility to pry Discovery off its carrier plane. The shuttle will then be towed to its hangar, known as an Orbiter Processing Facility, where engineers will prepare it for NASA's next shuttle mission.

Discovery will fly NASA's second return to flight mission, STS-121, now set to launch no earlier than March, 4, 2006. The mission was previously set to fly aboard the Atlantis orbiter, which is also set to fly the next major ISS construction flight. NASA officials switched STS-121 to Discovery last week to ease that schedule.

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