The space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth on Tuesday with a fiery dawn plunge across the heartland of America, closing out a complex space station resupply mission with a smooth Florida landing. Enlarge This Image Pool photograph by Pierre DuCharme The space shuttle Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Running a day late because of cloudy weather, Capt. Alan G. Poindexter of the Navy took over manual control at an altitude of about 50,000 feet above the spaceport, guiding the shuttle through a sweeping right overhead turn to line up on Runway 33. After the shuttle’s steep descent, Captain Poindexter pulled the Discovery’s nose up just before the runway threshold, and the pilot, Col. James P. Dutton Jr. of the Air Force, deployed the landing gear, and the shuttle settled to a tire-smoking touchdown at 9:08 a.m. Eastern time. “Houston, Discovery, wheels stopped,” Captain Poindexter radioed to mission control at the Johnson Space Center. “Roger, wheels stopped, Discovery. Welcome home,” Frederick W. Sturckow, an astronaut and retired Marine colonel, replied from mission control. “Dex, congratulations to you and the crew on an outstanding mission.” “Thanks for the words, it was a great mission,” Captain Poindexter replied, adding, “And we’re glad the International Space Station is stocked up again.” Re-entry was delayed one orbit because of showers and concern about fog near the shuttle runway. But as dawn broke over the Florida spaceport, conditions improved and Bryan C. Lunney, the entry flight director, cleared the shuttle for a descent to the Kennedy Space Center, avoiding a diversion to Edwards Air Force Base in California. To save fuel and avoid seasonal high-altitude ice clouds in the Northern Hemisphere, NASA prefers to bring the shuttles back to Florida on a southwest-to-northeast trajectory that carries them over the South Pacific, Central America and the Caribbean. But for the Discovery’s flight, NASA managers approved a path from the northwest to southeast that gave the crew additional time in orbit to complete its 15-day space station resupply mission. Crossing the Canadian coast high above Vancouver, the Discovery plunged across the American Northwest, flying above Helena, Mont.; Casper, Wyo.; and northeast Colorado as it descended. The shuttle’s computers guided the ship across central Kansas; Tulsa, Okla.; just north of Little Rock, Ark.; across central Mississippi; and Montgomery, Ala., before crossing into Florida to the Kennedy Space Center. Captain Poindexter; Colonel Dutton; Dorothy M. Metcalf-Lindenburger, the flight engineer; Naoko Yamazaki, a Japanese astronaut; Stephanie D. Wilson, operator of the robot arm; and Richard A. Mastracchio and Clayton C. Anderson, both spacewalkers, planned to fly back to Houston early Wednesday after reunions with friends and family members. Just a few miles from the runway, engineers were preparing the shuttle Atlantis for an overnight trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A for liftoff May 14 on its final planned flight, a space station assembly mission. Rollout was delayed one day by the same weather that blocked the Discovery’s return Monday morning. With the Discovery’s landing, only three shuttle flights remain before the fleet is retired. The final two launchings, by the Endeavour and the Discovery, are planned for July 29 and Sept. 16. With the shuttle’s retirement looming, NASA is racing the clock to deliver as much in the way of spare parts, supplies and science gear as possible to keep the space station operational during the gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of a new generation of American rockets. The Discovery’s crew delivered more than 17,000 pounds of science gear and equipment. An earlier version of this article misstated the type of turn the shuttle took in its approach to the runway. It was a right turn, not left.
By WILLIAM HARWOOD /The New York Times