Discovery returns safely to Earth

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE - The space shuttle Discovery landed safely early today on a desert air strip in California, 14 days after it blasted off from Earth.

"Discovery is home," Nasa's mission control in Houston said at 12.12am (NZT), the precise time the shuttle was scheduled to return from space.

"Welcome home, friends."

Commander Eileen Collins, who took control of the orbiter for its final descent, replied: "Congratulations on a job well done. Now let's get on with the check list."

"Congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight," Ken Ham at Mission Control in Houston told the Discovery crew as the shuttle stopped on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave desert.

The orbiter started its home-bound plunge about one hour before the landing.

Commander Collins and pilot James Kelly fired up the steering jets at 11.06pm to begin preparations for the return from space.

The burn lasted for two minutes and 42 seconds to get Discovery out of orbit and into an unpowered glide towards its home planet.

"Discovery has a good burn," Commander Collins told Houston. The engines were ignited over the Indian Ocean to slow it enough to re-enter Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific.

Then Pilot Kelly steered the shuttle on a trajectory leading it near Los Angeles and on to Edwards' Runway 22.

Nasa officials vowed to land the orbiter overnight (NZT) at one of three locations after weather conditions forced them to scrub the shuttle's scheduled return a day earlier.

The Kennedy Space Centre in Florida was Nasa's first choice, Edwards Base their second and White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico an unlikely third choice.

Officials would have preferred to land at Kennedy to avoid the cost and inconvenience of flying the shuttle back to its launch site from the alternative landing strips.

Cloud cover in Florida on Monday, although within Nasa's safety limits for landing, was enough to prompt mission controllers to scrub two chances for landing.

Nasa accomplished its main goal for the mission - safely launching and landing the ageing craft.

The landing ended Nasa's first shuttle mission since Discovery's sister ship, Columbia, was destroyed on February 1, 2003, 16 minutes from touchdown. All seven astronauts on board died.

Nasa scored some notable successes on its long-awaited return-to-flight mission, launched on July 26 after the agency spent $US1 billion on repairs and safety upgrades.

Discovery carried badly needed supplies and equipment to the space station and used new technology, including laser scanners, to search for damage on the outside of the shuttle.

Discovery's crew performed three successful spacewalks - replacing a faulty steering gyroscope and reviving another on the space station.

But the crew also had to perform an unexpected repair with an unprecedented and risky spacewalk to the belly of the shuttle to remove bits of cloth filler protruding from the spacecraft's heat-shield tiles, which Nasa managers feared could cause dangerous overheating on re-entry.

The fuel tank foam problem prompted Nasa to ground the shuttle fleet until it can find a fix. The US space agency has set September 22 as a target for the next shuttle launch.

The astronauts' last day in space began with the Beatles' Good Day Sunshine.

- REUTERS

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