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Picture-Perfect Landing For Space Shuttle

The space shuttle Discovery deploys its chutes as it lands at the Kennedy Space Center, Nov. 6, 2007.
CBS/NASA
Space shuttle Discovery touched down in time for lunch Wednesday, wrapping up a 15-day mission that saved a space station wing and allowed construction to continue at the orbiting outpost.

The on-time landing completed a 6.25 million-mile flight, the 34th trip into space for Discovery and its 23rd to the international space station. The mission took about 15 days and 2½ hours.

"It's nice to be back in Florida," radioed commander Pam Melroy after the landing.

Discovery's re-entry path had it crossing over Canada's British Columbia and making a diagonal descent over Montana, Wyoming, the Great Plains, the Deep South and, finally, down into Florida. NASA opted for the more populous route to avoid a riskier landing in darkness, and to give the crew some extra rest after such a long and strenuous flight.

This was the first shuttle approach to cross the U.S. since the Columbia accident showered North Texas with debris almost five years ago, reports CBS News correspondent Peter King. 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 before Discovery's descent began.

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.

The astronauts gathered samples of the steel grit and brought them back in a plastic bag. It's one of the first items NASA planned to grab following touchdown. By analyzing the shavings, engineers hope to pinpoint the source of the problem and devise a way to replace the grinding parts and clean up the mess, possibly with magnets.

Discovery also brought back a former space station resident, Clayton Anderson. He left the planet in June and spent 152 days in orbit.

Melroy, meanwhile, became only the second woman to land a space shuttle. Her flight coincided with the first female-led space station crew, and catapulted Melroy and station skipper Peggy Whitson into space history books.