CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The sky may be cloudy over NASA's Florida spaceport, but six astronauts are all smiles after riding their space shuttle back to Earth Monday.
"It's good to be back," said Discovery's STS-121 mission commander Steven Lindsey. "We had a long, but successful mission."
NASA's STS-121 astronauts landed aboard Discovery at 9:14 a.m. EDT (1314 GMT) today after a 13-day spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS). It was Lindsey who deftly piloted the spacecraft - then a 100-ton glider - to a graceful stop despite a thick cloud layer and some last minute runway changes.
"We didn't see 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 not a big deal."
Discovery's STS-12 spaceflight carried the astronauts around their home planet 202 times, about enough to span about 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers), NASA said. By the numbers, the mission ran 12 days, 18 hours, 37 minutes and 54 seconds, and cost an estimated $1 billion, the space agency said.
In addition to Lindsey, STS-121 pilot Mark Kelly and mission specialists Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson, Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum rode Discovery back to Earth Monday. Of the six astronauts -a seventh crewmember, European Space Agency (ESA) spaceflyer Thomas Reiter, joined the ISS Expedition 13 crew during the flights - Nowak, Wilson and Fossum made their spaceflight debuts with the mission.
"It does feel very good to not be a rookie anymore, to be able to have a spaceflight under my belt," Wilson said.
"When we first got up there, Mike and I kind of gave each other a high-five," Nowak said. "It was just so cool, we were in space."
Nowak kept her hair neatly tied in a ponytail to avoid the stereotypical weightless hairdo, but the method had its drawbacks.
"One of the funniest things I saw on orbit...we're down in the middeck and there's Velcro all over the place, and she got her hair stuck in the Velcro," Lindsey said of Nowak. "Of course it was very uncomfortable for her, but I just couldn't help myself and started cracking up."
Kelly, whose identical twin brother Scott Kelly is also a NASA astronaut and set to command STS-118 in August 2007, said he is looking forward to spending time with his family.
"We're going to go into town tonight and go home tomorrow," Kelly said, adding that he looks forward to seeing his children but had lost track of the days. "I'm looking forward to the weekend...what day is it?"
Fossum settled one remaining mystery from Discovery's flight surrounding some "surface deposits" - AKA bird droppings - which the STS-121 crew discovered during an in-depth inspection of their spacecraft's wing edges and nose cap.
"They made it home," Fossum said. "They were a bit charred."
Fossum and Sellers performed three spacewalks during their busy spaceflight, yet confessed that the mission's most gratifying moment was not the orbital work, but its completion.
"Most satisfying, I think, is you know when we all looked at each other, we all stopped frankly, and said, 'You know, we're done,'" Sellers said. "For me, you know, my most satisfying moment to see everyone else looking around at each other with smiles and say, 'We're done, we did it.'"
The astronauts did have a serious mission to perform, and according to mission managers they came through with flying colors. The astronauts not only ferried Reiter to the ISS, they also delivered thousands of pounds of cargo to the station crew, made fixes critical to orbital laboratory's future construction and tested a series of heat shield repair tools and techniques.
"This crew sitting 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's STS-121 mission marked the agency's second of two orbiter test flights since the 2003 Columbia accident that destroyed one orbiter and killed seven astronauts.
"I don't think we want to ever put Columbia behind us," Lindsey said, adding that the tragic loss led to vital improvements in safety and NASA culture. "We've learned the cultural organizational lessons of Columbia and that's the one thing we don't ever want to forget."
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