Discovery is home
for the holidays
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: December 22, 2006
Dropping out of an overcast sky, the shuttle Discovery glided to a picture-perfect one-orbit-late landing today at the Kennedy Space Center, closing out a complex space station assembly mission and avoiding a feared diversion to New Mexico.
Barreling down the runway with the shuttle's nose still elevated, Oefelein fired Discovery's red-and-white braking parachute, the nose landing gear rotated to the pavement and the orbiter slowly rolled to a stop.
"Houston, Discovery, wheel stop," Polansky radioed.
"Roger, wheel stop, Discovery," astronaut Ken Ham replied from mission control. "You've got a building full of thrilled folks back here in Houston that are thrilled to have you in Florida. Roman, to you and your crew ... congratulations on what was probably the most complex assembly mission to date."
"Thanks for the words," Polansky replied. "You've got seven thrilled people right here and we're just really proud of the entire NASA team that put this together. So thank you, and I think it's going to be a great holiday."
Mission duration was 12 days 20 hours 44 minutes and 24 seconds spanning 5.3 million miles and 203 complete orbits.
"The crew on orbit and the crew on the ground could not have done better," said NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. "I mean, I think when you look back at this mission, they just could not have done better. They did four EVAs (spacewalks) instead of three planned EVAs, accomplishing some additional tasks to get past a stuck solar array that teaches us once again we have a lot to learn about spaceflight and how our hardware performs in spaceflight.
"But we did learn and in the learning we made it better. So it was a wonderful day, it was a wonderful end to a great mission and I'm proud to be here."
The only alternative was a landing at White Sands Space Harbor, N.M., a backup site only used once in shuttle history and one that is not equipped to rapidly prepare a shuttle for return to Florida.
Entry flight director Norm Knight, overseeing his first shuttle landing, initial held out hope of going to Edwards when forecasters told him Kennedy appeared to be "no go." But as the time approached for the rocket firing needed to reach Edwards, crosswinds picked up at the Mojave Desert test flight facility and Polansky was told to reset the shuttle's flight computers for a possible Kennedy landing.
With less than seven minutes to go until the critical rocket firing, forecasters with the Spaceflight Meteorology Group at the Johnson Space Center in Houston predicted Kennedy would be "go" at landing time and chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, flying a NASA training jet near the runway, gave a thumbs up, saying rain showers were clearly dissipating.
Knight then gave Polansky clearance to proceed with re-entry.
"On behalf of the Kennedy Space Center, Christmas came three days early for us," said Mike Leinbach, launch director at the Kennedy Space Center. "We, uh, a great, great mood to have Discovery out on our runway.
"As you know, we did deploy some folks out to White Sands Space Harbor for a potential landing out there because at certain points late in the mission, it looked like we might have to land out there. So we were fully prepared to do that. We sent 52 folks out there, along with some special equipment, backup equipment we have here at the Kennedy Space Center in case we had to land out there. And we always have a backup crew out at (Edwards) in case we have to go out to California.
"But all that didn't have to happen," Leinbach said. "We came here today, it was a great call by Norm Knight and the flight team. And so it's great to have Discovery home."
Flying upside down and backward over the Indian Ocean, Polansky and Oefelein fired the shuttle Discovery's twin orbital maneuvering system rockets for three minutes and 46 seconds starting at 4:27 p.m. to lower the far side of the ship's orbit and set up a landing on runway 15.
The burn went normally and a half hour later, Discovery dropped into the discernible atmosphere 400,000 feet above the south Pacific Ocean.
The sky at Kennedy remained overcast throughout the descent, but the ceilings were well above NASA's 5,000-foot safety limit and the prevailing winds were pretty much right down the runway. Lindsey reported light turbulence just above the runway threshold, but said it posed no problem for Polansky.
Getting Discovery back to Florida was a welcome surprise to the astronauts, their waiting families and NASA managers who feared a diversion to Northrup Strip in White Sands.
Concerned about the threatening weather on both coasts, NASA managers rushed equipment and personnel to White Sands Wednesday and Thursday to assist the astronauts and protect the space shuttle from the elements if it had to land there.
Because NASA does not have the cranes and other equipment stationed at White Sands needed to service the shuttle and lift it up onto a 747 carrier jet for transport back to Florida, engineers estimated it could take a month or more to get Discovery home.
That would have thrown a major wrench into NASA's plans to launch Discovery next fall on a critical mission to deliver a European research module to the space station. But as it turned out, the fears were groundless and Discovery made it home without any major problems.
Polansky, Oefelein, flight engineer Robert Curbeam, Nicholas Patrick, Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang, Joan Higginbotham and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter plan to fly back to Houston Saturday.
For Reiter, launched to the station aboard Discovery last July, today's return marks a return to gravity for the first time in some six months. A team of flight surgeons was standing by to assist the veteran space flier, who faces weeks of physical therapy to regain his "land legs."
Reiter was replaced aboard the station by NASA astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams, who was ferried to the lab complex by Polansky and his crewmates. Williams, who joined Expedition 14 commander Mike Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin, plans to remain aboard the station until next spring.
Discovery's mission was the most complex flight yet in the space station assembly sequence, a challenging mission to switch the outpost from interim power to its permanent electrical system.
During two spacewalks, Curbeam and Fuglesang added a spacer segment to the station's main solar array truss and rewired two of the lab's four major power channels. Curbeam and Williams then re-wired the other two channels during a third spacewalk.
The astronauts also had to retract one wing of a huge solar panel in the system that provided the station's interim power. The array is scheduled to be moved to the far left end of the solar array truss next September.
But initial attempts to retract the panel were unsuccessful as the folding slats in the solar blankets repeatedly hung up on guide wires. Curbeam and Fuglesang eventually staged a fourth, unplanned spacewalk last Monday to successfully stow the balky blankets. But the addition of the spacewalk, and a decision to retain a final heat shield inspection Wednesday, pushed landing from Thursday to today.
Along with re-wiring the space station, the astronauts also transferred 69 pounds of oxygen, 47 pounds of nitrogen, delivered 4,800 pounds of equipment and supplies to the station and brought 4,900 pounds of trash and no-longer-needed gear back to Earth.
They also installed a camea on the station's solar array truss, delivered space debris shields for the Russian Zvezda command module, upgraded the U.S. carbon dioxide removal system and delivered a new charcoal bed for an air cleaner.
"This was a tremendous way to end this year, I think it's great to be back here in Florida, it's great to see the teams work and operate together," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief of space flight. "It was just a great, great day."