HOUSTON - More than 1,000 space fans, dignitaries and NASA engineers, workers and officials greeted the seven astronauts of Discovery STS-114 mission - the first shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster - during a welcome back ceremony here at an Ellington Field hangar.
Discovery's crew, commanded by veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, welcomed the reception after 14 days in space and a busy test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) that ended in Tuesday with a successful morning landing at Dryden Flight Research Center at California's Edwards Air Force Base.
"Words cannot express how much my thanks goes out to you," Collins told the gathered crowd of NASA engineers, instructors and officials after Houston mayor Bill White officially named Aug. 10, 2005 'Discovery STS-114 Day.'
Collins and shuttle pilot James Kelly landed Discovery Tuesday at 8:11:22 a.m. EDT (1211:22 GMT) at Edwards after weather conditions prevented a return to their Kennedy Space Center (KSC) launch site in Florida. Mission specialists Stephen Robinson, Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, Charles Camarda and Soichi Noguchi - of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), also flew on the shuttle mission.
Backed by a giant American flag on a stage, the crew waved to the jubilant, applauding crowd that assembled to welcome them back to the home state of Johnson Space Center.
"Over the last two weeks, we've seen the very best," NASA chief Michael Griffin said of Collins and her crew during the ceremony. "We're proud of them."
Discovery's STS-114 astronauts thanked the dedication and support from their families and the legion of NASA workers and officials that strived to launch Discovery spaceward and return them back safely.
"We're so happy to have him back," Camarda's wife Melinda told SPACE.com. "We wish we could have been up there with him."
The STS-114 crew completed a busy mission that included three spacewalks, ISS resupply, multiple inspections of Discovery's heat shield with a sensor-tipper boom, and a first-ever repair of a space shuttle's heat-resistant tile covered belly.
"We all prayed for their safe return," said Janet Freeman, of League City, Texas, whose nine-year-old son Collin attends school with Collins' daughter. "The [shuttle's] backflip, I thought, was really spectacular."
Collins piloted Discovery in an orbital backflip before docking the shuttle at the ISS. The maneuver allowed the two ISS Expedition 11 astronauts aboard the station to take high-resolution images of the shuttle's heat shield.
Discovery's STS-114 flight was NASA's first shuttle mission since the loss of Columbia and its seven STS-107 astronaut crew on Feb. 1, 2003. Columbia broke apart over Texas while reentering the Earth's atmosphere after a two-week orbital science mission.
Investigators later cited damage from a piece of foam that fell from Columbia's external tank and struck the orbiter's left wing leading edge at launch as the accident's cause. The foam piece, a 1.67-pound piece of insulation, pierced Columbia's protective heat shield, leaving it vulnerable to the heat of reentry, investigators found.
NASA spent $1.4 billion and two and a half years to develop new tools for astronauts to measure their spacecraft's integrity in orbit and prevent the type of foam loss that doomed Columbia from endangering future shuttles.
While NASA officials called Discovery's mission to test those new tools as "wildly successful," the loss of five pieces of foam too large to fit the agency's new safety standards led them to delay future shuttle flights - including the launch of Atlantis on STS-121, the second return to flight test mission, until the problem is solved.
"We've gone through some difficult times," Collins said. "Getting the shuttle back to space was difficult work, but it was a labor of love."
Discovery's crew kept the Columbia astronauts in their hearts and minds throughout their mission, and held a special tribute to fallen astronauts during their spaceflight.
"We wouldn't be standing here without the Columbia crew...we know so much about our vehicle, because of the things they did for us," Kelly said. "We would not be safe without them."
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