The space shuttle Discovery and its seven astronauts safely returned to Earth on Friday after some last-minute suspense over which landing site to use, closing out a year in which NASA finally got construction of the international space station back on track.
Its arrival announced by its signature twin sonic booms, the spaceship touched down on a floodlit runway in the early evening darkness after a smooth, 13-day flight during which the astronauts rewired the space station and delivered NASA astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams to the orbiting outpost for a six-month stay.
“It’s a thrill to have you in Florida,” Mission Control said.
After the shuttle rolled to a stop, ending its 5.3 million-mile journey, Discovery commander Mark Polansky said: “You have seven thrilled people right here. ... I think it’s going to be a great holiday.”
Less than two hours after touching down, Polansky and four other crew members — pilot William Oefelein, and mission specialists Robert Curbeam, Joan Higginbotham and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang of the European Space Agency — walked around the shuttle and inspected it under a light drizzle and blustery wind.
“Discovery is a beautiful vehicle, and we’re happy we were able to bring her home safely,” Polansky said.
Missing from the walk-around inspection were British-American astronaut Nicholas Patrick and German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency, who came back from a six-month stay at the space station and felt the pull of gravity Friday for the first time since July. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said Patrick and Reiter were both a bit shaky after their trip.
Suspense over the landing
At times, the progress toward Discovery's holiday homecoming was a bit shaky as well. Mission managers passed up Friday's first opportunity for landing, due to weather concerns. There were showers over Florida, and crosswinds at the usual backup landing site, Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert.
NASA was not thrilled about the third-best landing site, White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, because it lacks the cranes and other equipment needed to transport the shuttle back to its home at Cape Canaveral and service the ship on the ground. Only once has a shuttle landed there, in 1982.
Ultimately, NASA gave the go-ahead for a Florida landing on the second opportunity, when it appeared that the rain would not reach Cape Canaveral. The shuttle came in through scattered clouds.
“If you were to ask me before the flight what I wanted for Christmas, what I wanted was a safe and successful shuttle flight,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations. “This is just a tremendous way to end this year.”
Several hours before the landing, space station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria played a recording of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
“Thought this might be appropriate for Discovery,” radioed Lopez-Alegria, a U.S. astronaut.
Busy year for shuttle program
Discovery’s return completed NASA’s third shuttle flight of 2006, the most since 2002. After the Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts in 2003, the space agency struggled to redesign the shuttle’s fuel tank and resume regular construction of the half-built international space station.
Before this year, the only shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster was a single test mission in 2005.
Discovery’s crew made four spacewalks, installing a two-ton addition to the space station and switching the orbiting outpost from a temporary power source to a permanent one. The fourth spacewalk was an impromptu affair, added when NASA was unable to get an accordionlike solar array on the space station to fold up.
Two spacewalkers tightened wires and nudged the panels, finally getting the 115-foot-long (35-meter-long) array to collapse into its compartment like a jack-in-the-box.
“In a tough situation like this, they figured out what the problem was ... and continued with the rest of the construction,” said former shuttle commander Eileen Collins, who now serves on a NASA advisory panel. “I’m really proud of the guys.”
Other than that, the mission was practically flawless.
A record and a first
Curbeam took part in all four spacewalks, setting a record for the most in a single shuttle mission. Fuglesang, the first Swede in space, took three spacewalks.
The rewiring job set the stage for two new major additions to the space station from Europe and Japan that will be installed over the next two years. Five shuttle flights to continue space station construction are scheduled for next year, starting with an Atlantis launch set for March.
“We’ve had a fantastic year,” said Kirk Shireman, space station program deputy manager. “Next year is going to be bigger.”
This report was supplemented by information from MSNBC.com.