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Space Shuttle Discovery Heads Back to Florida Spaceport

Space Shuttle Discovery Heads Back to Florida Spaceport
The space shuttle Discovery, sitting atop NASA's specially modified 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, takes off from Edwards Air Force Base in California for a two-day trip to its Florida spaceport on Aug. 19, 2005. (Image credit: NASA TV.)

Perchedatop a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, the space shuttle Discovery began its homewardtrek toward NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida Friday, a two-day trip fromCalifornia.

The 100-tonspaceship and its carrier craft began the first leg of their flight, athree-hour trip from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center and Edwards Air ForceBase to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, at 11:31 a.m. EDT (1531 GMT).

"It wasperfect," NASA Dryden spokesperson Leslie Williams said of the departure.

Discovery landedat Edwards on Aug. 9 after carrying its STS-114 astronaut crew on a14-day spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS).

The mission markedNASA's first shuttle flight since the loss of seven STS-107 astronauts aboardthe Columbia orbiter, whichbroke apart while reentering the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003. A piece offoam insulation fell from Columbia's external tank and pierced its heat shieldduring its launch, which led to the disaster, investigators found.

Discovery'sSTS-114 crew, commanded by veteran Eileen Collins, tested a series ofinspection and orbiter repair methods during their flight. Unexpected foamloss seen during Discovery's July 26 launch prompted shuttleofficials to hold back on future orbiter flights until engineers cansolve the problem, though NASA has set March2006 as a tentative launch target.

On Thursday,shuttle officials tappedDiscovery for NASA's second return to flight test mission, STS-121 commanded byastronaut Steven Lindsey, to fly no earlier than March 4, 2006. The flight wasslated to use the Atlantis orbiter.

"It's notuncommon to change vehicles and, related to the flight, it's totallytransparent to the [astronaut] crew," NASA spokesperson James Hartsfield saidfrom Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Afterrefueling at Altus, Discovery's carrier 747 aircraft will ferry the orbiter to BarksdaleAir Force Base in central western Louisiana, where the piggybacked spacecraftwill stay for the night before heading toward KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility inCape Canaveral, Florida Saturday.

While ferryflights from Edwards to KSC typically cost about $1 million and take up to aweek, Discovery's move was delayed by severe storms and difficulties connectinga protective cone over Discovery's engine bells delayedthe process, NASA officials said.

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the Space.com team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. 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. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.