CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Discovery’s astronauts sliced their way through haze and headwinds to land at Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, capping a mission to complete the solar power system at the International Space Station.
With mission commander Lee Archambault at the controls, the spaceship plowed through clouds on final approach to NASA’s shuttle runway and then glided to a 225-mph touchdown as family and friends waved from a nearby fenceline.
The rollout on Runway 15 wound up a mission that doubled the amount of electricity available to run science experiments and the space station. It also set the stage for the crew size at the outpost to double to six in May.
“Welcome home, Discovery, after a great mission to bring the International Space Station to full power,” NASA astronaut George Zamka radioed from the Mission Control Center in Houston. “Great job, everybody.”
Discovery’s landing came six hours after a new expedition crew and a returning space tourist docked at the station.
Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, American astronaut Michael Barratt and billionaire software developer Charles Simonyi launched Thursday from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Simonyi, who oversaw the development of Microsoft Office software, paid the Russian Federal Space Agency about $35 million for a two-week round trip to the station.
The first space tourist to make a return trip to the outpost, Simonyi paid the Russians about $25 million for an April 2007 trip.
“It looks fantastic,” the Hungarian-born Simonyi said. “It grew quite a bit since the first time I was here. I’ve seen a lot of improvements and, of course, the enlargements. It’s an amazing sight.”
Launched March 15, Discovery’s astronauts completed construction of the station’s $2 billion central truss, which now stretches 335 feet, or about the size of a football field.
They delivered a fourth and final set of massive American-made solar wings. Now the station’s power system can generate up to 120 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power a neighborhood of 55 average American homes.
Discovery ferried up Koichi Wakata, the first Japanese astronaut to fly a long-duration station mission. He replaced NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus, who returned to Earth aboard Discovery after 134 days in space.