BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: August 9, 2005; Updated with more quotes/details
The shuttle Discovery's crew, braving the hellish fire of re-entry for the first time since Columbia's ill-fated descent two-and-a-half years ago, flew safely back to Earth today, gliding to a predawn California touchdown to close out an action-packed mission.
With veteran commander Eileen Collins at the controls, Discovery swooped to a ghostly, tire-smoking touchdown on runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert at 8:11:22 a.m. EDT, one day late because of concern about cloudy weather in Florida. The crew had two shots at a Kennedy Space Center landing today, but off-shore storms forced entry flight director LeRoy Cain to divert the shuttle to California.
Barreling down the runway at more than 200 mph, pilot James "Vegas" Kelly deployed a large braking parachute, the shuttle's nose dropped and the spaceplane slowly rolled to a halt.
"Houston, Discovery, wheels stopped," Collins radioed.
"Roger, wheels stopped, Discovery," called astronaut Ken Ham from mission control. "And congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight. Stevie Ray, Soichi, Andy, Vegas, Charlie, Wendy and Eileen, welcome home, friends."
"Thank you, those are great words to hear," Collins replied. "We're happy to be back and we congratulate the whole team on a job well done."
Discovery's high-speed touchdown was the final chapter in the 114th shuttle mission, a voyage spanning 5.8 million miles and 219 complete orbits since blastoff July 26 from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Collins, Kelly and their crewmates - flight engineer Stephen "Stevie Ray" Robinson, Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, Charles Camarda and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi - underwent brief medical checks before a traditional walk-around inspection on the runway.
"We had a fantastic mission, we are so glad to be able to come back and say it was successful, we resupplied the international space station, we met the test objectives of the space shuttle program, we brought Discovery back in great shape as you can see," Collins said on the landing strip.
"The crew was really anxious to walk around and see what the outside looked like and it looks fantastic. ... I just want to say thanks to all of those who worked this mission. For many of us, it's been four years since we've (started training) for STS-114 and this is a wonderful moment for all of us to experience."
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin agreed, praising Collins for a successful mission and joking that "I'm thinking about resigning my position. ... She's smarter, more personable, better looking, a better pilot."
"I think the crew performed beyond fantastically well," Griffin said. "The flight directors who haven't controlled a shuttle for two-and-a-half years performed fantastically well, the space station program, their flight controllers, their engineering team, were so good that nobody ever noticed them and they have not yet gotten the credit they really deserve for being able to deal with two and a half years of downtime on shuttle resupply. ... Everywhere you looked there was outstanding success."
Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons called Discovery's flight a "wildly successful mission" and Bill Readdy, associate administrator for spaceflight, said "Eileen made it look like a cakewalk."
Said Michael Leinbach, launch director at the Kennedy Space Center: "On July 26, we all sat here and said the only thing better than that launch would be on landing day. I'm here to tell you it really is truly better. Discovery's home, the crew is safe and we've come full circle now."
But with Discovery's safe return, NASA's full attention now shifts to figuring out what caused multiple pieces of foam insulation to fly off Discovery's external tank during launch. Columbia was brought down by wing damage caused by a foam debris strike during launch and the No. 1 priority of NASA's return to flight was fixing the insulation to minimize foam shedding.
But during Discovery's launch, a 0.9-pound chunk of foam peeled away from the tank just after solid booster separation. Two other relatively large pieces separated from the tank near the point where the shuttle's nose attaches to bipod struts and a fourth piece broke away from another area.
Media attention has focused on the largest piece, which came from a so-called protuberance air load - PAL - ramp designed to smooth the flow of supersonic air across pressurization lines and electrical cables. Going into Discovery's mission, the hydrogen PAL ramp, which was not modified in the wake of Columbia, had not suffered any known foam loss since 1983.
Last week, NASA confirmed that the area that broke away during launch had been slightly damaged and repaired, using standard procedures, during the tank's assembly at Lockheed Martin's Michoud, La., plant. NASA managers are hopeful whatever caused the foam to separate will be traced to an isolated problem with tank No. 121 and not a generic issue requiring a fleet-wide redesign.
But the PAL ramp foam is only part of NASA's problem and it's not yet known what might been needed to address the other areas of foam separation. One of those, from an area called the intertank flange, was modified in the wake of Columbia and engineers did not expect to see any significant debris.
"Now that we have Discovery on terra firma, we'll go work those other issues," Parsons said. "We've got the teams in place to get that data, that information, and I think in the next week or so we'll get some preliminary findings about where we're headed."
The shuttle Atlantis had been scheduled for launch on the second post-Columbia mission in September, but resolution of the foam problem made that target window problematic. Now, with Discovery back on the ground in California, a September launch is no longer thought to be possible. Discovery must be ready for launch as a rescue vehicle in case Atlantis suffers any significant damage on its flight and today's West Coast landing will add a week or so to Discovery's turn-around time.
Atlantis' launch already had slipped to no earlier than Sept. 22, giving it just four days to get off the ground before the September launch window closes. It now appears Discovery will be unable to support that window, even if the foam problem can be resolved in time.
The only other available launch window before the end of the year is a three-day period in November. Another short window opens in January but the first lengthy opportunity to send a shuttle back to the international space station is in March.
Griffin would not speculate on how long it might take to return the shuttle fleet to space.
"I don't want to guess," he said. "We're going to try as hard as we can to get back in space this year because we have a big construction project we're working on and we need the shuttle to do it. So we're going to try as hard as we can."
But he quickly added: "We're not going to go until we're ready to go."
Despite the disappointment over the launch-day foam events, Discovery's crew chalked up a near flawless mission, delivering tons of supplies to the space station and staging three spacewalks to install a new stabilizing gyroscope, an external tool and spare parts depot and to demonstrate potential heat-shield tile and wing leading edge repair techniques.
The astronauts also carried out an unprecedented inspection of the shuttle's heat shield, using a large sensor-equipped boom to examine the wing leading edges and nose cap and utilizing cameras on the station to photograph the orbiter's underside in great detail.
During that inspection, engineers spotted two protruding "gap fillers" sticking up from between tiles on Discovery's belly. Because of concern the gap fillers could trigger re-entry turbulence - and thus expose the underside tiles to extreme temperatures for longer periods - Robinson carried out emergency repairs during the crew's third spacewalk, plucking the gap fillers out with his gloved fingers.
The only other problem of any significance was a torn insulation blanket just below Collins' left-side cockpit window. After an extensive analysis, mission managers concluded Discovery could safely return to Earth as is and the damaged blanket was left in place.
Post-landing close-up television views showed most of the blanket survived Discovery's fiery re-entry with only minor signs of heat-related discoloration. It appeared that a small section at the extreme front end of the thin, 20-inch-long blanket might have ripped away during Discovery's passage through the dense lower atmosphere, but the on-orbit analysis appeared to be vindicated.
Collins and company had hoped to land Monday in Florida, but off-shore clouds and rain forced a one-day delay. More of the same was on tap today, and after ordering the crew to pass up the first of two Florida landing opportunities, Cain diverted Discovery to California.
"How would you feel about a beautiful clear night with a breeze down the runway in the high desert of California?" Ham radioed around 5 a.m.
"We are ready for whatever we need to do," Collins replied.
"OK, that's going to be our plan," Ham said. "The official forecast is holding electrified clouds off the coast of the Cape, which we're not going to send you through."
Flying upside down and backward on a northwest to southeast trajectory over the Indian Ocean, Discovery's flight computers fired up the ship's twin orbital maneuvering system rockets at 7:06:18 a.m. for a two-minute 42-second burn that slowed the ship by 187 mph, just enough to drop the far side of the orbit deep into the atmosphere.
Collins then flipped the shuttle around, putting it in a wings-level, nose-up orientation at a 40-degree angle of attack. After a half-hour freefall, Discovery fell into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of 400,000 feet - 75 miles - above the South Pacific Ocean.
Within minutes, Discovery was enveloped in a fireball as atmospheric friction converted the shuttle's energy of motion into heat. During Columbia's decent on Feb. 1, 2003, instruments on the shuttle recorded the first signs of abnormal heating just four minutes and 50 seconds after entry interface as plasma began.
But today, Discovery's fall to Earth appeared problem free as the shuttle streaked toward California.
See the Status Center for full play-by-play coverage.