The space shuttle Discovery settled to a windy touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center Friday, bringing NASA's final Mir resident back to Earth after 141 days in space and closing the books on the shuttle-Mir program after nine successful docking missions, reports CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood.
"They'll have your lasagna and Oreo cookie ice cream waiting when you get there," Mission Control assured American astronaut Andrew Thomas as the shuttle landed.
"I'm looking forward to that first meal," he replied.
His body weakened by 4 1/2 months in zero gravity, Thomas was carried from Discovery on a reclining seat and taken to Kennedy Space Center's crew quarters, where dinner and a slew of medical tests awaited him.
"He was smiling and giving thumbs-up and very, very happy," said astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, who sat next to Thomas on the shuttle ride home.
The 46-year-old unmarried engineer was the seventh NASA astronaut to live on Mir as practice for the international space station; he boarded the Russian outpost in January.
All together, the six men and one woman racked up 977 days in orbit beginning with the first expedition in 1995, and endured a raging fire, a near-catastrophic collision, computer breakdowns, power outages and toxic leaks.
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin greeted Thomas with a bouquet.
"He's getting a big hug from me because he did a terrific job and he maintained his mild manner," Goldin said.
NASA shuttles linked up with Mir nine times over the past three years. The Russians plan to let Mir burn up in the atmosphere by the end of 1999, when it will be 13 years old, and concentrate instead on the international space station, the first piece of which should be in orbit by November.
Shuttle commander Charles Precourt, who flew on three of the docking missions, said it was especially sad closing the hatch this time.
"All I can think is we really need to get going on the international space station and start doing bigger and better things," Precourt said.
The international space station should have been flying and inhabited by now. Because of Russia's money crunch, however, the first crew won't move in until July 1999.
NASA's Frank Culbertson, who as shuttle-Mir program director masterminded the linkups, said the international space station will benefit from the many experiences of the past three years.
"I am extremely happy that we were able to do what set out to do, which is to take seven Americans to the Mir and bring them home safely," Culbertson said. "But even better we learned how to work better together in space. We're better prepared to operate the international space station."
NASA's next shuttle flight will be in October, when Discovery lifts off with Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. He will be 77 when he returns to spce.
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