- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) — Space Shuttle Discovery and its seven crew members touched down here early yesterday morning, concluding the first shuttle re-entry since the Columbia disaster in February 2003.

The landing was moved to California because of thunderstorms at the shuttle’s home base of Cape Canaveral, Fla. Discovery’s journey, which began with a liftoff on July 26, spanned 219 orbits of Earth and 5.8 million miles. It landed at 5:11 a.m. PDT.

“Congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight,” Mission Control said once Discovery came to a stop. “Welcome home, friends.”

“We’re happy to be back, and we congratulate the whole team for a job well-done,” commander Eileen Collins said.

The inherently dangerous ride down through the atmosphere — more anxiety-ridden than normal because of what happened to Columbia 2 years ago — appeared to go smoothly.

“I was pretty anxious all day,” flight director LeRoy Cain said at a post-landing press conference. He said there were a couple of “insignificant” anomalies during re-entry.

Two hours after landing, the astronauts walked around the shuttle to inspect for any damage.

“It looks fantastic,” Mrs. Collins said of the shuttle’s condition.

Held up a day by bad weather in Florida, the shuttle soared across the Pacific and over Southern California, passing just north of Los Angeles on its way to Edwards in the Mojave Desert. NASA adjusted the flight path to skirt Los Angeles because of new public safety considerations in the wake of the Columbia disaster, which rained debris onto Texas and Louisiana.

Unlike previous landings at Edwards, for which thousands of people were on hand, the public was not allowed to observe Discovery’s landing because of tightened base security since the September 11, 2001, attacks. It will be a week before Discovery leaves California, riding piggyback atop a modified Boeing 747 back to Cape Canaveral.

NASA called it a test flight, and it was — in an alarming way no one anticipated. The potentially deadly 1-pound chunk of foam insulation came off the redesigned fuel tank during liftoff, missing Discovery but demonstrating that the space agency had not resolved the very problem that doomed Columbia.

The problem prompted NASA to ground shuttle flights for the time being. Shuttle managers acknowledged the mistake, while stressing that the inspection, photography and other shuttle data-gathering systems put in place for this flight worked exceedingly well. Moreover, no severe damage was detected on Discovery while it was in orbit.

A torn thermal blanket under a cockpit window was left as is, after engineers decided it posed little risk as re-entry shrapnel. Two pieces of filler material protruding between tiles on Discovery’s belly were removed by a spacewalking astronaut last week, for fear they could lead to a repeat of the Columbia disaster. The fabric strips slipped out of the narrow gaps between thermal tiles for reasons not known.

The shuttle astronauts spent nine days at the International Space Station, restoring full steering capability to the orbiting outpost, delivering much-needed supplies and replacement parts, and hauling away a 2-year backlog of trash.

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