Home Again: Six Astronauts Celebrate Shuttle Landing

Home Again: Six Astronauts Celebrate Shuttle Landing
The crew of the space shuttle Discovery, from left, Commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Mark Kelly and mission specialists Michael Fossum, Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson and British born U.S. astronaut Piers Sellers meet with reporters during a press conferencethe Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Monday, July 17, 2006. (Image credit: AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The sky may be cloudy over NASA's Florida spaceport, but six astronauts areall smiles after riding their space shuttle back to Earth Monday.

"It's goodto be back," said Discovery's STS-121 mission commander StevenLindsey. "We had a long, but successful mission."

NASA's STS-121astronauts landedaboard Discovery at 9:14 a.m. EDT (1314 GMT) today after a 13-dayspaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS). It was Lindsey whodeftly piloted the spacecraft - then a 100-ton glider - to a graceful stopdespite a thick cloud layer and some last minute runway changes.

"We didn'tsee anything until about 10,000 feet," said Lindsey, a four-time shuttle flyer."I'd never gone through weather like that on real shuttle landing but it's nota big deal."

Discovery'sSTS-12 spaceflight carried the astronauts around their home planet 202 times,about enough to span about 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers), NASAsaid. By the numbers, the mission ran 12 days, 18 hours, 37 minutes and 54seconds, and cost an estimated $1 billion, the space agency said.

In additionto Lindsey, STS-121 pilot Mark Kellyand mission specialists LisaNowak, StephanieWilson, PiersSellers and Michael Fossumrode Discovery back to Earth Monday. Of the six astronauts -a seventhcrewmember, European Space Agency (ESA) spaceflyer ThomasReiter, joined the ISS Expedition 13 crew during the flights - Nowak,Wilson and Fossum made their spaceflight debuts with the mission.

"It doesfeel very good to not be a rookie anymore, to be able to have a spaceflightunder my belt," Wilson said.

"When wefirst got up there, Mike and I kind of gave each other a high-five," Nowaksaid. "It was just so cool, we were in space."

Nowak kepther hair neatly tied in a ponytail to avoid the stereotypical weightlesshairdo, but the method had its drawbacks.

"One of thefunniest things I saw on orbit...we're down in the middeck and there's Velcro allover the place, and she got her hair stuck in the Velcro," Lindsey said ofNowak. "Of course it was very uncomfortable for her, but I just couldn't helpmyself and started cracking up."

Kelly, whoseidentical twin brother Scott Kelly is also a NASA astronaut and set to commandSTS-118 in August 2007, said he is looking forward to spending time with hisfamily.

"We'regoing to go into town tonight and go home tomorrow," Kelly said, adding that helooks forward to seeing his children but had lost track of the days. "I'mlooking forward to the weekend...what day is it?"

Fossumsettled one remaining mystery from Discovery's flight surrounding some "surfacedeposits" - AKA birddroppings - which the STS-121 crew discovered during an in-depth inspectionof their spacecraft's wing edges and nose cap.

"They madeit home," Fossum said. "They were a bit charred."

Fossum andSellers performed three spacewalks during their busy spaceflight, yet confessedthat the mission's most gratifying moment was not the orbital work, but itscompletion.

"Mostsatisfying, I think, is you know when we all looked at each other, we allstopped frankly, and said, 'You know, we're done,'" Sellers said. "For me, youknow, my most satisfying moment to see everyone else looking around at eachother with smiles and say, 'We're done, we did it.'"

Theastronauts did have a serious mission to perform, and according to mission managersthey came through with flying colors. The astronauts not only ferried Reiter tothe ISS, they also delivered thousands of pounds of cargo to the station crew,made fixes critical to orbital laboratory's future construction and tested aseries of heat shield repair tools and techniques.

"This crewsitting before you, they were just about as perfect as you can be on a flight,"Lindsey said. "I couldn't have asked for anything more."

NASA'sSTS-121 mission marked the agency's second of two orbiter test flights sincethe 2003 Columbia accidentthat destroyed one orbiter and killed seven astronauts.

"I don'tthink we want to ever put Columbiabehind us," Lindsey said, adding that the tragic loss led to vital improvementsin safety and NASA culture. "We've learned the cultural organizational lessonsof Columbia and that's the one thing we don'tever want to forget."

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com 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 Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, 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 Space.com 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.