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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