CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The seven-astronaut crew of space shuttle Discovery finished a long journey in space today and are glad to be back on solid ground.
Commander Pamela Melroy, who led the STS-120 space station construction mission, said she felt like her crew hit the mission out of the park.
"It seems like we kind of hit a triple homerun," Melroy said today. She noted the first was adding a new chunk of the International Space Station (ISS) and the second relocating a massive solar power tower. But Melroy said the third--rescuing a torn solar array wing at a far end of the orbital laboratory--was a crowning moment for NASA, too.
"I have never seen anything like it," Melroy said of efforts both from space and Mission Control in Houston, Texas, who scrambled to devise a repair plan. "I don't think anyone at the Johnson Space Center probably slept for two or three days."
Melroy was joined by pilot George Zamka, mission specialists Stephanie Wilson, Dan Tani, Doug Wheelock and Scott Parazynski, and Italian spaceflyer Paolo Nespoli.
Wheelock, who assisted Parazynski on the torn solar blanket spacewalk, said watching his companion stitch in homemade "cuff links" into the array wing was an amazing sight.
"It was like watching a surgeon," Wheelock said of Parazynski, who is a trained medical doctor.
The astronauts performed another vital task for the future of the ISS during their 15-day mission: Taking up astronaut Dan Tani to replace Clay Anderson, flight engineer and five-month spaceflyer on the ISS.
Anderson conducted a tear-jerking ceremony before he left the space station, playing Bing Crosby's rendition of "Danny Boy" to welcome Tani to the space station and "Coming Home" by Collective Soul" to send himself off. The moment choked up ISS commander Peggy Whitson and had the rest of the crew--all but one, that is.
"I didn't cry, but I was thinking about it," said Zamka, a former marine lieutenant. The shuttle pilot said Anderson had emotional support during his 152 days, but noted his lack of a core group to fall back on made the Nebraska native's departure tough.
As for the tears they all shed, Melroy broke down the physics of zero-gravity crying.
"They just kind of stay there till you wipe them away," Melroy said, with Wheelock chiming in that they turn into "salty balls."
More work ahead
Although Discovery's crew landed safely on the ground today, NASA has no plans to slow down arrival of shuttle Atlantis and the STS-122 crew in early December.
The three Expedition 16 crew members on board the space station--Tani, Whitson and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko--have less than one month to perform what NASA officials called three extremely tough spacewalks today.
The extravehicular activities will relocate and prepare the new Harmony module as a connection point for the soon-to-arrive Columbus laboratory, slated to fly on shuttle Atlantis in early December.
Mission managers also said that fixing a gritty set of gears, used to orient some of the space station's solar arrays toward the Sun, won't be impossible but will take quite a bit of time.
Today's successful landing ended Discovery's 34th spaceflight. It was the 23rd shuttle mission to the ISS and the 120th shuttle to fly.
- VIDEO: Discovery's STS-120 Astronaut Crew Speak Out
- NEW IMAGES: Launch Day for Shuttle Discovery
- SPACE.com VIDEO Interplayer: STS-120 Mission Brings 'Harmony' to ISS