CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space Shuttle Discovery’s seven astronauts are homeward bound.
They’ll spend today making final preparations, then if all goes as scheduled, swoop into Kennedy Space Center at 4:46 a.m. EDT Monday. If the weather or some other problem gets in the way, the Discovery will have a second chance to land at 6:21 a.m. EDT.
Discovery’s crew left the international space station early Saturday, after exchanging farewells, hugs and handshakes with the outpost’s two-man crew. It was the first shuttle visit to the orbiting complex since 2002.
“We’re so happy to have spent time up here with them,” Discovery Commander Eileen Collins said before hatches separating the two craft were sealed.
“Thank you for being wonderful guests, it’s really been a pleasure,” said John Phillips, a NASA astronaut who has lived aboard the space station since April. “We’d love to have you stay a little longer … Have a great flight and a soft landing.”
With Discovery’s pilot Jim Kelly at the controls, the shuttle undocked from the station at 3:24 a.m. EDT and moved about 400 feet away before flying a full loop around the outpost. Inside Discovery, the crew snapped pictures of the glistening station.
NASA engineers will analyze the photos as a routine measure to monitor the station’s condition. Agency managers said the undocking and flyaround went “by the book.”
The mission has had some tense moments. There were fears that chunks of foam, which fell off the external tank during the July 26 launch, could endanger the ship, protruding gap fillers that had to be fixed during a space walk and concerns about a damaged thermal blanket.
But after extensive inspections of Discovery, which showed it to be in good condition, flight controllers were upbeat Saturday about the planned landing.
“We are going to be pretty darn happy to see this good crew step off Discovery,” flight director Paul Hill said. “We’re all going to feel a huge sense of accomplishment having … demonstrated that we still know how to do this very difficult and dangerous business.”
Discovery’s mission is the first since the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003 when the ship broke apart over Texas as it headed for a landing at Kennedy Space Center.
For its landing, Discovery will be flying a different approach to Florida, coming up over Costa Rica and crossing over the northern part of Cuba before making landfall on the west coast of Florida and heading northeast toward KSC.
On Monday, NASA only will try to land in Florida. If weather keeps the shuttle in orbit for another day, the agency then would look at landing in Florida or the backup site in California on Tuesday.