- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Discovery arrived back at its home port yesterday atop a jumbo jet after a 5.8 million-mile journey through space — the first by a shuttle in 2 years — and then a jog across the country.

The shuttle, bolted to the top of the modified Boeing 747, flew from its last pit stop in Louisiana to the Kennedy Space Center and, at midmorning, touched down on the runway where it should have landed almost two weeks earlier.

One of the seven astronauts who had ridden Discovery into orbit, Stephen Robinson, was among the crowd that gathered at the landing strip to welcome the shuttle home.

“As much as a person can love a machine, I really love that bird and look at this magnificent sight of it out here on the runway and back where it belongs at home with the people who take care of her,” Mr. Robinson said, gazing at the shuttle behind him.

Launch director Mike Leinbach was thrilled to get Discovery back from California, where it landed Aug. 9, but couldn’t help but think of Columbia’s catastrophic return that Saturday morning in February 2003.

“I feel like a family member has come home in one piece and safe, and it’s just so good to see an orbiter whole again on the back of a 747,” Mr. Leinbach said. “It’s just an emotional time. It’s a beautiful sight.”

Bad weather in Florida prevented Discovery from returning here after two weeks in space. Instead, the first shuttle mission since the Columbia explosion ended 2,200 miles away in Southern California, costing NASA an extra $1 million for the cross-country trek.

Discovery and the jetliner left California’s Edwards Air Force Base Friday and had to spend an extra night at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana because of poor weather.

The shuttle still is loaded with the gear and trash it picked up at the International Space Station. All that will have to be removed, and the shuttle thoroughly inspected, before NASA can fly it again.

Vehicle manager Stephanie Stilson, who accompanied Discovery back from California, said the spacecraft shows remarkably little damage, although its nose cap — a particularly vulnerable area — has a ding. Engineers do not know what caused it.

She said the chip in the nose cap’s thermal shielding is smaller than the tip of a pinkie — “very, very minor damage” — and workers should be able to repair it easily.

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