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Mission Shows "Value Of Humans In Space"

Discovery's astronauts were getting their spaceship ready Tuesday for the next day's landing, wrapping up a 15-day mission that kept the crew far busier than they had planned.

This mission may be most remembered for its improvised repairs on a damaged solar wing.

"What we demonstrated this flight is the real value of having humans in space," NASA shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.

NASA said the preliminary weather forecast looked good for Wednesday's planned early afternoon touchdown at Kennedy Space Center.

Because of the solar wing problems, the international space station crew will have to perform two spacewalks that were cancelled to make way for the repair, reports .

After leaving the station on Monday, Discovery's crew inspected their ship one final time to make sure it would be prepared for the fiery descent through the atmosphere.

The astronauts used a laser-tipped boom to hunt for possible micrometeorite damage to the shuttle's wing and nose that might have occurred during the 11 days the shuttle was docked to the orbiting outpost.

NASA was finishing up its analysis of the latest laser data and expected to let the astronauts know later Tuesday if they are cleared for landing.

The space agency had wanted Discovery's spacewalkers to test a new fix for the shuttle's heat shield, reports , and it's still on the agenda.

"Before Hubble, we would like to demonstrate the tile repair," Hale said.

The Hubble telescope repair flight is scheduled for next September. It's the only fight where a shuttle crew won't have the space station as a safe haven. NASA will try to squeeze the tile repair test in to an already jammed spacewalk schedule.

"We're now looking at one of the two flights in the spring as a potential to manifest that test," Hale said.

Shuttle Atlantis could launch as early as Dec. 6, and is set to deliver a new European laboratory called Columbus to the space station.

This 15-day mission is longer than most. Crew fatigue is one reason the space agency decided to position Discovery for the first coast-to-coast re-entry since Columbia disintegrated over Texas in 2003. The calamity sent tens of thousands of pounds of wreckage raining down on at least two states.

Discovery's original landing plan called for the ship to zoom up from the southwest over Central America and the Caribbean before landing in Florida. But that would have entailed a pre-dawn landing, and shuttle commander Pamela Melroy preferred a safer, easier touchdown in daylight, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.

In their inspection, the astronauts used the same laser- and camera-tipped boom that two weeks ago found Discovery's heat shield to be free of any significant launch damage. Monday's check was for any strikes by micrometeorites or space junk in orbit.

The astronauts woke up Tuesday morning to Deep Purple's "Space Trucking," played for astronaut Clayton Anderson (left), who's headed home after a five-month stay on the space station.

"You know, they say all great things have to come to an end, and I'm really sorry that I have to agree with that for now, but I had an awesome ride with several awesome crews," Anderson said. "I miss my family and I miss my friends and I'm looking forward to being back on the ground."