And shuttle co-pilot Jim Kelly admits there was a "moment of trepidation" as commander Eileen Collins was about to execute the de-orbit burn this morning. It was at that point that Columbia started to break apart 2 1/2 years ago.
Kelly says he kept watching for warning signs of possible trouble -- though he admits there might not have been much that could have been done about it.
But Kelly says the astronauts have to put their trust in the people who sent them into orbit. And he says because of the changes made following Columbia, this crew had a much better idea of what kind of shape the shuttle was in.
Collins, meanwhile, says the biggest accomplishment of this flight was simply "getting the shuttle flying again."
Discovery's crew, braving the hellish fire of re-entry for the first time since Columbia's ill-fated descent, flew safely back to Earth Tuesday, gliding to a predawn California touchdown to close out an action-packed mission.
With 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 looks fantastic," Collins said of the shuttle's condition, after the crew walked around it for the traditional post-landing inspection.
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."
President Bush offered his congratulations to the Discovery team during a press briefing at his Texas ranch.
"It was a great achievement," the president said. "It was an important step for NASA as it regains the confidence of the American people and begins to transition to the new mission we've set out for NASA."
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."