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Coast-To-Coast Shuttle Landing Planned

The stabilizer and payload bay on the shuttle orbiter Discovery are seen above the Earth Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007.
AP/NASA
Discovery's astronauts aimed for midday touchdown Wednesday to wrap up a 15-day mission that saved a space station wing and allowed construction to continue at the orbiting outpost.

Forecasters did not expect the weather to interfere with Discovery's planned landing at Kennedy Space Center.

This is the first shuttle approach to cross the U.S. since the Columbia accident showered North Texas with debris almost five years ago, reports . Since then, NASA has studied the issue and determined a healthy orbiter poses no risk to the population.

"The studies took into account populations across the country, as well as systems on board the orbiter," said entry flight director Bryan Lunney.

The ship's first landing path would take the crew over far western Canada, the Great Plains and several Southern states.

If bad weather or other problems force NASA to scrub the landing attempt, the shuttle's second opportunity would include flying over several Western states, Texas and Louisiana.

"I do not have Edwards or Northrop called up at all," said Lunney. Edwards Air Force Base is in southern California, the Northrop Strip at White Sands, N.M.

As the shuttle comes in for a landing in Florida, residents of eastern states may be able to see the plasma trail.

"I would say at least in the middle, to the eastern side of the country, they'd be able to see something if they're directly beneath the ground track," Lunney said. "It's worth the sight, assuming they've got no clouds above them."

"I was hoping that everybody would have a chance to watch us come in, and I hope they enjoy the view," said Discovery commander Pam Melroy.

Mission managers decided Tuesday that Discovery was safe for re-entry after examining the results of multiple thermal shield inspections.

Discovery blasted off on Oct. 23 on a mission that was considered the most challenging and complex in the nine years of orbital assembly of the international space station.

The crew delivered and installed a new pressurized compartment called Harmony, which will serve as a docking port for future laboratories, and moved a massive solar power tower half the length of a football field to the far left end of the station.

The mission took a dramatic turn, however, when one of the tower's giant solar wings ripped in two places as the astronauts unfurled them after the move.

"Those arrays weren't designed to be worked on. They had to improvise this, and it was critical," says CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood. "They had to fix that solar array to clear the way for continued assembly, so they could have the power they need for European and Japanese research modules that are coming up in December, February and April."

Saturday's emergency repair of the torn wing was an unprecedented and daring feat whipped up by flight controllers in just a few days.

Standing at the end of a 90-foot robotically operated boom, spacewalker Scott Parazynski stretched his 6-foot-2 frame to cut the tangled wires that snagged the wing and install homemade braces.

He was farther from the safe confines of the station than any other astronaut had ever been, and he was mere inches away from the wing, which was coursing with more than 100 volts of electricity.

The torn wing was one of two space station power problems that emerged during Discovery's visit. Steel shavings were found inside a rotary joint needed to turn another set of solar wings at the orbiting outpost.