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Discovery returns safely

Edwards Air Force Base, August 9
The space shuttle, Discovery, and its seven astronauts returned to Earth safely today, bringing a successful end to NASA’s troubled return to human space flight two and a half years after the Columbia disaster.

Discovery made its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and swooped over the Pacific Ocean before gliding to a smooth landing at 0812 hrs EDT (1742 hrs IST) at Edwards Air Force Base in California after a 14-day mission that included a stay at the International Space Station.

Space Shuttle Discovery Commander Eileen Collins said the gut-wrenching 14-day voyage had been “fantastic”, but that she and her crew were relieved to be back to Earth.

“We have had a fantastic mission,” she said in her first words after she and the six other astronauts who manned the flight returned to Earth after a space outing riddled with problems.

NASA diverted the shuttle to California after bypassing four chances to land at Discovery’s home port, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where clouds and rain showers proved troublesome. “Congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight,” astronaut Ken Ham at Mission Control in Houston told the Discovery crew as the shuttle stopped on the runway. “Welcome home friends,” he said.

NASA accomplished its main goal for the mission — safe launching and landing the aging shuttle. But when chunks of insulation flew off Discovery’s fuel tank during launch, the US space agency learned it had failed to fix the problem that doomed Columbia on February 1, 2003.

NASA scored some notable successes on its long-awaited return-to-flight mission, launched on July 26 after the agency spent $1 billion on repairs and safety upgrades. Discovery carried badly needed supplies and equipment to the space station and used new technology, including laser scanners, to search for damage on the outside of the shuttle.

Discovery’s crew performed three successful spacewalks — replacing a faulty steering gyroscope and reviving another on the space station.

But Discovery’s crew also had to perform an unexpected repair with an unprecedented and risky spacewalk to the belly of the shuttle to remove bits of cloth filler protruding from the spacecraft’s heat-shield tiles.

The fuel tank foam problem prompted NASA to ground the shuttle fleet until it can find a fix. The US space agency has set September 22 as a target for the next shuttle launch. — Reuters

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