Touchdown! Discovery Lands Safely in California

Touchdown! Discovery Lands Safely in California
In this image from NASA television, the space shuttle Discovery touches down safely on runway 22 at the Edwards Air Force Base in Calif. in this televised view Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005. This is the 50th space shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base. (AP Photo/NASA TV)

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

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

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

"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 tobe back again."

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

The landing ended an almost5.8-million mile trek that carried Discovery's astronauts around the Earth 219times. During its STS-114 mission, Discovery astronauts tested new orbitalinspection 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 thespaceflight. "We've finally been able to put the icing on the cake with this mission."

Tuesday's landing was the secondtime this week that Collins and her crew donned their orange pressure suits forreentry. An initial attemptto land in the pre-dawn hours Monday was called off after low clouds andpotential rain showers prevented the orbiter from taking advantage of twolanding opportunities. The delay gave the STS-114 astronauts an extra day inspace, which they spent looking out the window, the astronauts said.

"The crew of STS-114 thanks you fora great day off," mission specialist Stephen Robinson told flight controllersMonday.

Landing at the Mojave Desert-basedEdwards Air Force Base, where shuttle arrivals are overseen by NASA's DrydenFlight Research Center,was the second choice after KSC for STS-114 ascent/entry flight director LeroyCain.

But the weather forecast at Edwardswas better than at KSC'sShuttle Landing Facility, where rain showers and lightening prevented Discoveryfrom making either of its two Floridalanding opportunities Tuesday. It was about 5:03a.m. EDT (0912 GMT) when flightcontrollers made decision to press for a landing on the concrete Runway 22 atEdwards.

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

Discovery's landing came just overan hour after the shuttle fired its Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines at7:06 a.m. EDT (1106 GMT) while flying overthe western Indian Ocean near Madagascar. About 40 minutes after firing itsengines, the shuttle hit the edge of the Earth's atmosphere while flying 17,500miles per hour over the Cook Islands in the PacificOcean.

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

Returning to Earth

Collins and Discovery pilot JamesKelly guided the 100-ton Discovery orbiter back to Earth from the shuttle'sflight deck, where Robinson - also serving as flight engineer - and missionspecialist Andrew Thomas also sat.

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

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

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

Discovery's STS-114 mission isNASA's first shuttle flight since the Columbiatragedy that destroyed one orbiter and killed seven astronauts. Columbiabroke apart over Texas on Feb.1, 2003, raining debris across the region. Its STS-107 astronautcrew did not survive.

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

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

Discovery passed just north of LosAngeles as it approached its Edwards Air Force Baselanding site.

Cain said flight planners were ableto tweak the Discovery's flight plan to avoid flying over the heavily-populatedareas of the Los Angeles Basin.NASA has taken a renewed interest in public safety concerns regarding shuttleflights over populated after observing the amount of debris strewn acrossmultiple states when Columbia brokeapart in 2003.

After more than two and a half yearsand $1.4 billion spent to enhance shuttle flight safety and prevent dangerousfoam loss from external tanks at liftoff, NASA launchedDiscovery on July 26 only to observe a 0.9-pound foam chunk fall from theorbiter's external tank. That foam chunk did not strike the orbiter, but joinedthree other pieces too large to meet NASA's new safety standards which fellduring the launch. Shuttle officials have suspendedfuture orbiter flights until the problem is solved.

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

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

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

Busy flight

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

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

The STS-114 astronauts also deliveredabout six tons of new equipment, suppliers and spare parts to the ISS on NASA'sfirst shuttle re-supply mission to the station since December 2002 - and returnedabout three tons of trash, unneeded or broken equipment. The space station hasrelied on Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft to deliver new crews andsupplies to the ISS since the Columbiaaccident.

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

STS-114 spacewalkers Robinson andNoguchi staged three spacewalks from Discovery's airlock during their timedocked at the ISS. During those orbital outings, the astronauts tested repairtechniques for damaged tiles and heat-resistant panels, replaced a failed gyroscopefor the ISS and added a spareparts platform to the exterior of the orbital laboratory. Robinson alsoconducted the first-ever repair during the final spacewalk,when Lawrence and Kelly used the station's robotic arm to position him underDiscovery's belly to remove two gap-fillers sticking out from between theorbiter's heat-resistant tiles.

Discovery's landing at Edwards AirForce Base marked the 50th time a shuttle touched down at the site, where it isoverseen by NASA's Dryden FlightResearch Center,and the conclusion of NASA's 114th shuttle flight. It was the sixth nightlanding for a shuttle - which occurat least 15 minutes before sunrise - at the Mojave Desertfacility.

Discovery is the first shuttle toland 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's747 carrier jet, shuttle officials said, adding that it is unclear how theextra 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 thanSept. 22, but Discovery must be readied to serve as a rescue craft shouldAtlantis suffer extensive damage during the planned flight, they added.

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

  • Fixing NASA: Complete Coverage of Space Shuttle Return to Flight

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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.