Space shuttle Discovery and its crew of six returned to Earth through thick clouds Monday, ending an impressive mission that put NASA's space program back on a solid, safer course.
Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center at 9:14 a.m. in only the second shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster killed seven astronauts.
"Welcome back, Discovery, and congratulations on a great mission," Mission Control told shuttle commander Steven Lindsey after Discovery rolled to a stop.
"It was a great mission, a really great mission, and enjoyed the entry and the landing," Lindsey replied.
The smooth landing was sure to leave NASA officials jubilant, after conquering the chronic threat of foam chunks that break off the external fuel tank during launch - still a problem, but not a serious one in this mission.
The shuttle came in from the south, swooping over the Pacific, Yucatan Peninsula, Gulf of Mexico and across Florida to cap a 5.3-million-mile journey that began on the Fourth of July.
A last-minute buildup of clouds led NASA to switch the shuttle's direction for landing. By the time Discovery approached, it was so cloudy, Lindsey couldn't spot the runway until about a minute before landing.
A couple of minutes out, NASA made a racket to keep birds out of the way of the approaching spacecraft. Car horns blared, and the sound of gunshots and firecrackers erupted.
At touchdown, shouts and whistles came from the few hundred astronauts' relatives and space center workers at the runway. "It's exciting to see the shuttle back," said astronaut Scott Kelly, the identical twin brother of Discovery's co-pilot, Mark Kelly. "We're back on track with maybe flying the shuttle regularly here starting again in August."
Atlantis is up next with a crew poised to carry out assembly of the international space station, a task put on the back burner after Columbia.
Congratulations poured in from afar. "A proud nation congratulates the brave shuttle Discovery crew on the completion of their successful return to flight mission," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
NASA officials had been certain going into Monday's landing that Discovery's heat shield was intact and capable of protecting the spaceship during the fiery re-entry.
Repeated inspections of the ship's thermal skin in orbit had given everyone confidence. Unlike Discovery's flight a year ago, the external fuel tank shed little foam insulation during liftoff. That flight was the shuttle's first after a chunk of falling foam doomed Columbia and its crew.
Officials acknowledged re-entry into Earth's atmosphere was, along with the launch, the most dangerous phase of the mission and nothing could be taken for granted until Discovery was safely back from its 13-day trip to the space station. Discovery's astronauts and flight controllers kept close watch on a slightly leaking power unit.
NASA did not know whether harmless nitrogen gas or flammable hydrazine was dripping from the auxiliary power unit, one of three needed to drive Discovery's hydraulic landing systems. The leak was small and didn't grow during descent, and the unit operated properly. One of two probes for measuring air flow around the shuttle, however, was sticky and took longer to deploy than usual.
Discovery sported a new, tougher type of landing gear tire for improving safety. In another shuttle first, an on-board GPS receiver helped guide the shuttle down to the 3-mile-long landing strip.
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