- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — Separated from the International Space Station, their heat shielding inspected one last time for damage and all their goals accomplished, the astronauts of Space Shuttle Discovery were ready to come home yesterday.

NASA considers the flight an unblemished success, something the shuttle program hasn’t had in nearly four years.

“It’s sad to see the shuttle leave when it does, but I can’t think of a better mission in recent history,” space station program manager Mike Suffredini said. “Every objective that we went in with was completed and, in fact, a couple of extra things got done for us.”

With just a few more last-minute radar data images remaining to be examined, NASA engineers could find no problems with the shuttle’s heat shield. They had used several methods to look for flaws during nearly two weeks.

An official, final “good to go” decision for landing is expected today. Discovery will try to land at a possibly cloudy and rainy Kennedy Space Center tomorrow , at either 9:14 a.m. EDT or 10:50 a.m. EDT.

Discovery must land by Wednesday, and if it can’t complete its flight tomorrow, NASA will consider the backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Early yesterday, Discovery’s crew bid farewell to the space station, taking pictures and leaving European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter behind for a six-month stay.

Then, pilot Mark Kelly fired up the shuttle’s steering jets, slowly backing Discovery away from the station as the two passed over the Pacific Ocean more than 220 miles below.

“Have a safe journey back, soft landing, and we’ll see you on the ground in a few months,” space station flight engineer Jeff Williams radioed to Discovery.

Discovery commander Steve Lindsey responded: “Thanks, Jeff. We enjoyed it tremendously.”

The undocking went “by the book,” chief flight director Tony Ceccacci said.

After moving 45 miles away from the space station, the Discovery astronauts used the shuttle’s 50-foot robotic arm and its new 50-foot extension boom to inspect the orbiter’s right wing and nose cap — the fourth precautionary examination of the 13-day mission. The shuttle stayed close enough to the space station that it could dock again if necessary to await a landing clearance from mission managers reviewing the inspection images.

Results of this final inspection were expected early today. An earlier survey of the left wing, to check for any damage from orbital debris, turned up nothing of concern, deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said.

There remained only one concern that could affect the astronauts’ landing plans: a slow leak in one of the shuttle’s three units that power hydraulic systems used for steering and braking.

There was no way of knowing whether the leak involved harmless nitrogen or flammable hydrazine, so the power unit with the leak will be turned on early today as part of its normal testing, and engineers will watch to see if the leak rate changes. If it does, NASA may burn off the hydrazine and shut the unit down before the landing to eliminate any fire hazard, Mr. Shannon said.

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