'Today we honored the Columbia crew,' the shuttle program manager said.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- In the end, it looked deceptively simple.
With veteran commander Eileen Collins at the controls, space shuttle Discovery glided to a predawn landing in the California desert Tuesday, completing NASA's first manned mission since the Columbia disaster in 2003.
The smooth touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base wrapped up a 14-day, 5.8-million mile test flight that included nine days at the international space station. Early morning thunderstorms off Cape Canaveral kept the shuttle from returning to its launch site at the Kennedy Space Center.
"Congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight," astronaut Ken Ham radioed the crew from Mission Control. "Welcome home, friends."
"Thank you, those are great words to hear," Collins, 48, replied. "We're happy to be back, and we congratulate the whole team on a job well done."
Throughout NASA there was jubilation.
"Today, we honored the Columbia crew. We brought Discovery home safely," said Bill Parsons, NASA's shuttle program manager. "You want to know how I feel? I feel fantastic. It's good to be us today."
Sighs of relief
Across the country Discovery's landing prompted sighs of relief. Many Americans, spurred by memories of Columbia, had anxiously tracked the shuttle's journey.
Few had a more personal connection to the mission than the families of the Columbia crew.
"This was the landing that Dave did not get to make," said Dorothy Brown, 79, mother of astronaut David Brown. Brown, along with other relatives of the Columbia astronauts, had traveled to KSC in hopes of seeing the shuttle return.
The goal of the test flight was to check out a number of hardware and procedural changes made since the Columbia disaster. The mission was hugely successful in every respect but one: The shuttle's 15-story external fuel tank shed five pieces of potentially damaging foam insulation during Discovery's July 26 launch.
A debris strike during liftoff doomed Columbia. This time, none of the large pieces of foam struck the orbiter.
An investigation is under way to determine what went wrong and how to fix it. NASA managers pledged Tuesday to find the problem before Atlantis is launched on the next mission to the space station. That flight is scheduled to lift off no earlier than Sept. 22, a date many shuttle managers consider unrealistic.
"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," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said. "So, we're going to try as hard as we can, but we're not going to go until we're ready to go."
For the second straight day Tuesday, thunderstorms and lightning thwarted two opportunities for Discovery to land at KSC.
After foregoing the first chance at 5:07 a.m., flight controllers held out hope for the second at 6:43 a.m. until storm cells started popping up "out of nowhere," astronaut Ham explained to Discovery's crew.
Discovery's fiery descent through Earth's atmosphere began shortly after 7 a.m. over the western Indian Ocean, when the ship fired its orbital-maneuvering engines for nearly three minutes to slow itself down. Though focused intently on the task at hand, the astronauts later said their thoughts were on Columbia as well.
Pilot Jim Kelly described a twinge of anxiety just before Collins started the engine firing that began Discovery's return.
"Once you do that, you're coming home," said Kelly, an Air Force colonel and test pilot. "I had a moment of reflection thinking about the Columbia crew and obviously hoping we'd make it further than they did and wishing that they'd made it all the way home. There was a little bit of trepidation there, I think, for me. I wouldn't be human otherwise."
At 7:40 a.m., the shuttle hit the upper layers of atmosphere about 75 miles above the planet's surface as it soared over the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. Discovery crossed the California coastline about 15 minutes later just north of the heavily populated Los Angeles basin and zipped east toward Edwards Air Force Base.
As Discovery dropped below the speed of sound, Kelly briefly took the controls before turning them over to Collins. She guided the spaceship onto the Mojave Desert runway at 8:11 a.m.
"Eileen made it look like a cakewalk," said Bill Readdy, a senior manager at NASA headquarters in Washington. "She did such a spectacular job."