CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Discovery and its crew returned to Earth on Wednesday and concluded a 15-day space station build-and-repair mission that was among the most challenging in shuttle history.
The space shuttle touched down on a crisp and bright fall afternoon after safely crossing the continent in the first coast-to-coast re-entry since the Columbia disaster almost five years ago.
The seven shuttle astronauts and three residents of the International Space Station teamed up during the docked mission to save a mangled solar wing. It was one of the most difficult and dangerous repairs ever attempted in orbit, but the future of the space station was riding on it, and Scott Parazynski pulled it off in a single spacewalk.
“It was an extraordinary feat,” shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said after shaking the astronauts’ hands.
The repair – hailed by NASA as one of the top all-time space saves – allows the space agency to press ahead with the next shuttle flight to the space station in early December. Atlantis will deliver a European laboratory.
Discovery’s commander, Pamela Melroy, was quick to thank everyone who helped pull off the mission.
“It really was a beautiful moment for NASA,” she said.
On its way home, Discovery crossed over British Columbia and made a diagonal descent over Montana, Wyoming, the Great Plains, the Deep South and, finally, down into Florida. NASA opted for the more populous route to avoid a riskier landing in darkness, and to give the crew some extra rest after such a long and strenuous flight.
Double inspections of the spaceship’s wings in orbit confirmed the thermal shielding would hold up to the 3,000-degree heat of atmospheric re-entry. A quick look at the shuttle on the landing strip showed little if any damage.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the flight, from start to finish, demonstrated “NASA at its very best.” He described the landing as “spot on” and also “just as pretty as it gets – if that matters.”