HOUSTON - Space shuttle Discovery returned safely to Earth Friday evening, landing in California after being diverted due to rain showers over Florida.
Shuttle commander Rick Sturckow brought Discovery to a touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert at 8:53 p.m. EDT (0153 GMT Sept. 12), after spending two days being waved off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida due to rain showers and strong winds in the vicinity of the shuttle landing facility on both Thursday and Friday.
"Houston, Discovery, wheels stop," Sturckow said after landing.
"Welcome home Discovery!" Mission Control replied. "Congratulations on an extremely successful mission stepping up science to a new level on the International Space Station."
The landing concluded a 14-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that delivered new science equipment and the COLBERT treadmill - named after TV comedian Stephen. The resupply mission came to an end the day after another cargo flight launched from Japan.
Back on Earth
Returning home with Sturckow were Discovery?s STS-128 mission pilot Kevin Ford and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, Danny Olivas, Jose Hernandez and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Christer Fuglesang. Rounding out the crew for the return to Earth was flight engineer Tim Kopra, who spent 44 days as a member of the station?s Expedition 20 crew for a total of 58 days in space.
?Two months is not too long in space and it was a great opportunity,? Kopra said from space Wednesday. ?I will miss the sunrises and sunsets, but especially my crew who I shared my two months with onboard the space station.?
Kopra?s replacement aboard the station, astronaut Nicole Stott, launched with Discovery?s crew just seconds before midnight on Aug. 28. Stott, who will return on the next shuttle mission targeted for launch in November, is the last astronaut scheduled to be rotated onto the station?s crew by means of the U.S. orbiter. For the immediate future, all ISS crew members will launch and land on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
The day before Discovery touched down, Japan?s space agency launched its first H-2 Transfer Vehicle, or HTV-1, an unmanned cargo supply ship is due to arrive at ISS Sept. 17 and be captured by the station?s robotic arm. The HTV will compliment Russian Progress and European resupply vehicles, as well as future American-built commercial spacecraft, in supporting the ISS after the space shuttle is retired in the next year or so.
?It is a very important milestone,? said Kopra, ?not just for the International Space Station Program, but also for the Japanese portion of the program because this is a vehicle they have constructed and it is very unique on how it will dock to the space station. It is a precursor to how we may use commercial vehicles to bring supplies to the space station.?
Discovery landed with over 2,000 pounds of science experiment results and refuse from inside the outpost. Equipment and supplies were also returned on the orbiter?s middeck, including a 12-inch Buzz Lightyear action figure, which spent more than a year on the ISS as part of an educational partnership between NASA and the Walt Disney Company.
Resupply and replacements
Discovery?s mission was the 30th space shuttle flight the orbiting outpost since construction began in 1998. It was dedicated to delivering vital supplies and equipment needed to support the station?s six-person crew.
?Our mission has gone really well,? Sturckow said Wednesday. ?We transferred a large amount, about 14,800 pounds of equipment and supplies.?
Most of what was transferred, including science and storage racks, a freezer to store research samples and a new sleeping compartment, were lofted inside the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), a pressurized ?moving van? that was relocated from Discovery?s payload bay to the side of the station?s Harmony node and then back.
Leonardo also carried the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. The station?s second astronaut exercise treadmill, it was named after comedian Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central?s ?The Colbert Report? as a consolation prize for winning a NASA naming poll for its next space station module.
COLBERT launched in hundreds of parts to be assembled by the crew after the HTV-1 arrives.
Discovery?s payload bay also carried the Lightweight Multi-Purpose Experiment Support Structure Carrier (LMC), a cargo pallet that supported the STS-128 mission?s three spacewalks.
During the trio of outings, Olivas, Stott and Fuglesang outfitted the station with a new ammonia coolant tank, manipulating the largest object - the size of a small car - ever moved by astronauts outside the ISS. They also retrieved three exterior experiments, one European and two U.S., for return to Earth.
Olivas and Fuglesang, who performed two of the three spacewalks together, also worked to run cables to support the arrival of the Tranquility node in early 2010 but ran into problems with one of its power connectors, leaving the work to be completed during a future excursion.
With the completion of this mission?s spacewalks and his previous three, Fuglesang set a record for the most time spent working in the vacuum of space by an astronaut of any nationality other than Russian or American.
The fourth of five space shuttle missions planned for this year, STS-128 marked the 37th flight of Discovery, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of its maiden launch while in space on this mission.
NASA currently plans to fly six more shuttle missions to complete construction of the station and stock the orbiting laboratory with supplies. The shuttle fleet is slated to retire in 2010 or so to make way for new spacecraft capable of leaving low Earth orbit.
The next orbiter to fly is Atlantis, which is due to launch toward the station Nov. 12 carrying even more supplies for the orbiting laboratory.
- Image Gallery - Shuttle Discovery's Midnight Launch
- Video - Stephen Colbert to NASA: 'No Chubby Astronauts'
- SPACE.com Video Show - The ISS: Foothold on Forever