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Space shuttle returns to Florida

The space shuttle Discovery, riding a top a 747, returned to Florida Sunday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Discovery arrived back at its home port Sunday atop a jumbo jet following a 5.8 million-mile journey through space — the first by a shuttle in 2½ years — and then a jog across the country.

The shuttle, bolted to the top of the modified Boeing 747, flew from its last pit stop in Louisiana to the Kennedy Space Center and, at midmorning, touched down on the runway where it should have landed almost two weeks earlier.

One of the seven astronauts who had ridden Discovery into orbit, Stephen Robinson, was among the small crowd that gathered at the landing strip to welcome Discovery home.

Bad weather in Florida prevented Discovery from returning here after two weeks in space. Instead, the first shuttle mission since the Columbia tragedy ended some 2,200 miles away in Southern California on Aug. 9, costing NASA an extra $1 million for the cross-country trek.

Discovery and the jetliner left California’s Edwards Air Force Base on Friday and had to spend an extra night at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana because of poor weather.

The shuttle still is loaded with the gear and trash it picked up at the international space station. All that will have to be removed, and the shuttle thoroughly inspected, before NASA can start readying it for the next flight.

Late last week, Discovery was bumped to the start of the launch lineup after NASA decided to put off the next mission until at least March. Atlantis had been scheduled to fly in September, but the loss of an alarming amount of foam insulation from Discovery’s fuel tank resulted in a grounding of the shuttle fleet.

Altogether, just over one pound of foam came off Discovery’s tank during liftoff on July 26, most of that in a single 3-foot section. The same problem led to Columbia’s destruction during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, and the deaths of seven astronauts.