The shuttle Discovery's crew, braving the hellish fire of re-entry for the first time since Columbia's ill-fated descent two-and-a-half years ago, flew safely back to Earth Tuesday, gliding to a predawn California touchdown to close out an action-packed mission.
With veteran commander Eileen Collins at the controls, Discovery swooped to a ghostly, tire-smoking touchdown on runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert at 8:11:22 a.m. EDT, one day late because of concern about cloudy weather in Florida. The crew had two shots at a Kennedy Space Center landing Tuesday, but off-shore storms forced entry flight director LeRoy Cain to divert the shuttle to California.
It was the 50th shuttle landing at the famed Air Force test center and only the sixth carried out in darkness. But Collins, a 1990 graduate of Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards, had no problems, reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood, guiding Discovery to a picture-perfect touchdown.
Barreling down the runway at more than 200 mph, pilot James "Vegas" Kelly deployed a large braking parachute, the shuttle's nose dropped and the craft slowly rolled to a halt.
"Houston, Discovery, wheels stopped," Collins radioed.
"Roger, wheels stopped, Discovery," called astronaut Ken Ham from mission control. "And congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight. Stevie Ray, Souichi, Andy, Vegas, Charley, Wendy and Eileen, welcome home, friends."
"Thank you, those are great words to hear," Collins replied. "We're happy to be back and we congratulate the whole team on a job well done."
Discovery's high-speed touchdown was the final chapter in the 114th shuttle mission, a voyage spanning 5.8 million miles and 219 complete orbits since blastoff July 26 from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Collins, Kelly and their crewmates — flight engineer Stephen "Stevie Ray" Robinson, Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, Charles Camarda and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi — were expected to climb out of the shuttle for quick medical checks before a traditional walk-around inspection on the runway.
"I think the crew performed beyond fantastically well. The flight directors, who haven't controlled the shuttle for 2½ years, performed fantastically well," said NASA administrator Michael Griffin. He told reporters about an hour after the touchdown that the space agency hopes to get another shuttle into space this year, but wouldn't promise it.
"We always knew it was going to be a test flight and it was going to give us a lot of information, and we've come back with a lot learned," said shuttle program manager Bill Parsons. "I think I'll agree with the administrator, this was a wildly successful mission in so many ways."
With Discovery back safely on the ground, NASA's full attention now shifts to figuring out what caused multiple pieces of foam insulation to fly off Discovery's external tank during launch. Columbia was brought down by wing damage caused by a foam debris strike during launch and the No. 1 priority of NASA's return to flight was fixing the insulation to minimize foam shedding.
But during Discovery's launch, a 0.9-pound chunk of foam peeled away from the tank just after solid booster separation. Two other relatively large pieces separated from the tank near the point where the shuttle's nose attaches to bipod struts and a fourth piece broke away from another area.
But the foam is not the only problem for the next launch.
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