July 16, 2006 in Nation/World

Mission complete; Discovery returning

Seth Borenstein Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Earth looms behind the international space station after the space shuttle Discovery left it Saturday.
(Full-size photo)

HOUSTON – Separated from the international space station Saturday, their heat shielding inspected one last time for damage and all their goals accomplished, the astronauts of the space shuttle Discovery were ready to come home.

NASA considers the flight an unblemished success, something the shuttle program hasn’t had in nearly four years.

“It’s sad to see the shuttle leave when it does, but I can’t think of a better mission in recent history,” said space station program manager Mike Suffredini. “Every objective that we went in with was completed and, in fact, a couple of extra things got done for us.”

With just a few more last-minute radar data images remaining to be examined, NASA engineers could find no problems with the shuttle heat shield. They had used several methods to look for flaws during nearly two weeks.

An official, final “good to go” decision for landing is expected today. Discovery will try to land at a possibly cloudy and rainy Kennedy Space Center on Monday, at either 6:14 a.m. PDT or 7:50 a.m. PDT.

Discovery must land by sometime Wednesday, and if it can’t complete its flight Monday, NASA will consider the backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Early Saturday, Discovery’s crew bid farewell to the international space station, taking pictures and leaving European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter behind for a six-month stay.

Then, pilot Mark Kelly fired up the shuttle’s steering jets, slowly backing Discovery away from the station as the two passed over the Pacific Ocean more than 220 miles below.

The undocking went “by the book,” said chief flight director Tony Ceccacci.

After moving 45 miles away from the space station, the Discovery astronauts used the shuttle’s 50-foot robotic arm and its new 50-foot extension boom to inspect the orbiter’s right wing and nose cap – the fourth precautionary examination of the 13-day mission. The shuttle stayed close enough to the space station that it could dock again if necessary to await a landing clearance from mission managers reviewing the inspection images.

Results of this final inspection were expected early today. An earlier survey of the left wing, to check for any damage from orbital debris, turned up nothing of concern, said deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon.

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