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Launch: Feb. 7, 1999
Comet flyby: Jan. 2, 2004
Landing: Jan. 15, 2006
Capsule release: 12:57 a.m. EST (0557 GMT)
Atmospheric entry: 4:57 a.m. EST (0957 GMT)
Main chute deploy: 5:05 a.m. EST (1005 GMT)
Touchdown: 5:12 a.m. EST (1012 GMT)
Site: Utah Test and Training Range

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Stardust return preview
NASA's Stardust spacecraft encountered Comet Wild 2 two years ago, gathering samples of cometary dust for return to Earth. In this Dec. 21 news conference, mission officials and scientists detail the probe's homecoming and planned landing in Utah scheduled for January 15, 2006.

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NASA through the decades
This film looks at the highlights in NASA's history from its creation in the 1950s, through the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, birth of the space shuttle and the loss of Challenger, launch of Hubble and much more.

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STS-49: Satellite rescue
If at first you don't succeed, keep on trying. That is what the astronauts of space shuttle Endeavour's maiden voyage did in their difficult job of rescuing a wayward communications satellite. Spacewalkers were unable to retrieve the Intelsat 603 spacecraft, which had been stranded in a useless orbit, during multiple attempts using a special capture bar. So the crew changed course and staged the first-ever three-man spacewalk to grab the satellite by hand. The STS-49 astronauts describe the mission and narrate highlights in this post-flight presentation.

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First satellite repair
The mission for the crew of space shuttle Challenger's April 1984 flight was two-fold -- deploy the experiment-laden Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) and then track down the crippled Solar Max spacecraft, capture it and perform repairs during spacewalks. Initial attempts by the astronauts to grab the craft while wearing the Manned Maneuvering Unit spacewalk backpacks failed, but the crew ultimately retrieved Solar Max and installed fresh equipment while it was anchored in the payload bay. The crew narrates this post-flight presentation of home movies and highlights from mission STS-41C.

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STS-26: Back in space
The space shuttle program was grounded for 32 months in the painful wake of the 1986 Challenger accident. Americans finally returned to space in September 1988 when shuttle Discovery safely launched for its mission to deploy a NASA communications satellite. Enjoy this post-flight presentation narrated by the astronauts as they show movies and tell the story of the STS-26 mission.

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Amazing STS-51I flight
Imagine a space shuttle mission in which the astronaut crew launched two commercial and one military communications spacecraft, then conducted a pair of incredible spacewalks to recover, fix and redeploy a satellite that malfunctioned just four months earlier. The rescue mission was a success, starting with an astronaut making a catch of the spinning satellite with just his gloved-hand. Enjoy this post-flight presentation narrated by the astronauts as they tell the story of shuttle Discovery's August 1985 mission known as STS-51I.

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Discovery's debut
In our continuing look back at the classic days of the space shuttle program, today we show the STS-41D post-flight presentation by the mission's astronauts. The crew narrates this film of home movies and mission highlights from space shuttle Discovery's maiden voyage in August 1984. STS-41D deployed a remarkable three communications satellites -- a new record high -- from Discovery's payload bay, extended and tested a 100-foot solar array wing and even knocked free an icicle from the shuttle's side using the robot arm.

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"Ride of Your Life"
As the title aptly describes, this movie straps you aboard the flight deck for the thunderous liftoff, the re-entry and safe landing of a space shuttle mission. The movie features the rarely heard intercom communications between the crewmembers, including pilot Jim Halsell assisting commander Bob Cabana during the landing.

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Message from Apollo 8
On Christmas Eve in 1968, a live television broadcast from Apollo 8 offered this message of hope to the people of Earth. The famous transmission occurred as the astronauts orbited the Moon.

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Welcome home, Stardust!
Posted: January 15, 2006
Updated: 11:20 a.m. adding quotes and details from news conference

Wrapping up a seven-year, 2.9-billion-mile space odyssey, NASA's Stardust comet sample return vehicle plunged back to Earth early Sunday, slamming into the atmosphere above the western United States at nearly 30,000 mph and putting on a spectacular sky show before floating to a gentle, parachute landing in Utah.

Tracking sensors did not initially indicate a successful deployment of the craft's stabilizing drogue parachute, raising fears of a repeat of the 2004 crash of a similar spacecraft carrying samples of the solar wind.

But the small parachute did, in fact, deploy on time and the Stardust main parachute unfurled as planned about 10,000 feet above the Utah Test and Training Range, sparking wild cheers and applause among flight controllers as the craft's rate of descent abruptly slowed.

"Appears to be under a good chute," a controller said over NASA's audio loop. "All stations, main chute is open, we're coming down slowly," project manager Tom Duxbury told the team.

A few moments later, the ground team picked up a UHF locator beacon broadcast from the descending craft and at 5:10 a.m., radar indicated touchdown on the UTTR salt flats.

"All stations, we have touchdown," Duxbury said, prompting another round of cheers back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A helicopter recovery team at the landing site immediately took off and began searching for the capsule. Buffeted by brisk winds, the craft drifted several miles north of its entry ground track while descending under the main parachute and the searchers did not immediately spot it in the pre-dawn darkness.

But finally, at 5:54 a.m., the craft was located, prompting yet another round of cheers and applause.

"All stations, we can report (the search team) has located the capsule," Duxbury reported.

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The small sample return canister bounced several times in the moist desert before coming to a halt, none the worse for its hellish plunge to Earth. Recovery crews loaded the capsule onto a helicopter and flew it back to a nearby clean room for a detailed inspection. The precious comet samples will be removed and flown to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday for the start of an exhaustive analysis by an international team of scientists.

"It's hard to describe what it feels like to be at this point of the mission," principal investigator Don Brownlee told reporters later. "We travelled almost three billion miles in space. We visited a comet, grabbed a piece of it and it landed here this morning. It's an incredible thrill."

Said Duxbury: "This thing went like clockwork. We released this capsule from our spacecraft and it hit the atmosphere exactly on time. ... We were counting down three, two, one, zero, when the drogue chute was supposed to come out.... when we saw that drogue chute open, we knew we were home safe."

Brownlee and a few colleagues ran outside during the long-awaited re-entry on the off chance the spacecraft might be visible in the night sky.

"We did this mission to collect the most primitive materials we could in the solar system," he said. "We went to a comet that formed at the edge of the solar system, it's the same class of body as the planet Pluto except it was smaller and it was well preserved. It formed far from the sun under very cold conditions and we're confident that it was made out of the initial building blocks of our solar system.

"We have always stressed in this mission that we are star dust because our planet and even ourselves have a direct relation to the kind of particles we brought back this morning. But I have to say, the most spectacular part of this entire mission for me was five minutes before (landing)."

Standing in the darkness, Brownlee kept looking at his watch hoping to catch a glimpse of his spacecraft.

"We weren't quite sure how bright it was going to be and some people didn't think we would see anything," he said. "Then I saw something up there. I thought, there's Mars! But I knew it wasn't in the right part of the sky. It looked like Mars and it was twinkling a little bit, getting a little brighter, and moving. I thought, maybe that's a helicopter. But it kept getting brighter and brighter and brighter. It was a reddish color, it looked like a torch. ... Even though it was coming down from space, in our view from the ground, it was actually climbing in the sky. It was a meteor getting bright and brighter and brighter."

The sky show lasted for about a half minute. The returning spacecraft sported "a long trail behind it, this bright, luminous climbing thing with this glowing trail behind it," Brownlee said. "It's ironic, you have a comet mission that ends producing a comet. It was just an absolute thrill to see this.

"Now inside this thing is our treasure, our sample of the edge of the solar system that truly contains star dust, the building blocks of the solar system, this little 32-inch capsule, which is being heated to thousands of degrees on the outside coming through the atmosphere at 29,000 miles an hour. And then it lands in this wonderful place, the Utah Test and Training Range in the great Salt Lake desert. It was a real thrill."

The Stardust probe began its seven-your voyage Feb. 7, 1999, with a flawless launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida atop a Boeing Delta 2 rocket.

The target of the mission was comet Wild 2, which spent virtually its entire life in the outer solar system. In 1974, however, the comet made a close flyby of Jupiter, which deflected it into a different orbit that has since carried it around the sun only a handful of times. Compared to other short-period comets, Wild-2 is believed to be relatively pristine, providing an unprecedented window on the birth of the solar system.

After a velocity-boosting Earth flyby in 2001, Stardust finally caught up with the comet on Jan. 2, 2004. Just before closest approach, a two-sided 14-inch-wide dust collector shaped like a tennis racket was extended into the dust stream surrounding the comet. Cells on the back side of collector were used earlier in the flight to collect interstellar dust grains.

Along with successfully collecting samples, the spacecraft's navigation camera snapped 72 photos of Wild-2's frozen nucleus as the spacecraft made its final approach.

The goal of the ambitious mission is to answer long-standing questions about the cloud of dusty debris that coalesced to form the solar system and whether comets helped seed planet Earth with water and the organic building blocks of life.

"The science that's going to come out of this, that's going to tell us about the early formation of our solar system, the role that comets have played in the formation of Earth and ourselves, that will unfold over the next few years," Duxbury told reporters earlier. "The science that this project is returning will be unprecedented."