August 6, 2005

Shuttle leaves station, focus shifts to landing

By Irene Klotz

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The shuttle Discovery sailed away from
the International Space Station on Saturday while NASA braced
for the first landing since the crew of Columbia died minutes
before they were due to touch down in February 2003.

"We are going to be pretty darn happy to get to wheels stop
and see this good crew step off," said lead flight director
Paul Hill. "It'll be a huge sense of accomplishment having
gotten through the last two years and demonstrated that we
still know how to do this very difficult and dangerous

After 13 days in orbit, Discovery is due back at the
Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:46 a.m. (0846 GMT) on

The mission is NASA's first since the Columbia accident.
Columbia was damaged during liftoff by a piece of foam
insulation that fell off the fuel tank and struck the

ship's wing. As the ship plunged through the atmosphere for
landing 16 days later, superheated gases blasted inside the
damaged wing, melting the structure and dooming the crew.

A major goal of Discovery's mission was to test how well
the newly designed fuel tank worked and practice using a suite
of imaging and data analysis techniques to assess the shuttle's
condition while it was in orbit.

Though the fuel tank shed much less debris than on previous
flights, several large pieces still broke away during launch,
prompting NASA to halt future missions until the problems can
be readdressed.


"Once we get wheels stop, we'll turn our attention to what
do we need to do to make sure that subsequent flights are
equally safe," shuttle deputy manager Wayne Hale said.

NASA optimistically penciled in Sept. 22 as a target launch
date for Atlantis to launch on the second post-Columbia test

"I would not call that a serious launch date at this
point," Hale said.

NASA's immediate concern is returning Discovery safely to
Earth. It will have two landing attempts in Florida on Monday,
and if weather or technical issues preclude touchdown, the
shuttle will stay in orbit another day, Hale said.

Backup landing sites in California and New Mexico will be
staffed to support a landing on Tuesday if Florida, the prime
site, remains unavailable, he said.

After a nine-day service and resupply mission at the space
station, the seven shuttle astronauts boarded Discovery and
closed the hatch. Pilot Jim Kelly gently pulsed the ship's
thrusters to ease away from the station, then looped the space
freighter around the outpost while his crewmates snapped
pictures to document the station's condition.

Bidding the station crew a final farewell, Kelly then fired
the shuttle's jets to leave the station's orbit, the first step
toward the trip back home.

While at the station, Discovery astronauts Soichi Noguchi
and Steve Robinson conducted three spacewalks, which were
mostly devoted to maintenance work on the station and
installing a storage platform on its exterior.

The third walk included an unprecedented repair by Robinson
on the shuttle's belly as he plucked out two cloth strips
protruding from the heat shield.

Discovery transferred tons of cargo to and from the space
station, stocking it with food, water and other supplies, and
carting off trash and unneeded equipment that had piled up
since the last shuttle visit in 2002.

Shuttles are supposed to be primary suppliers for the
station, but Russian spacecraft have ferried in goods since the
Columbia disaster.

Space station astronauts Sergei Krikalev and John Phillips
warmly thanked the Discovery crew on Friday for their visit and
sent them off with handshakes and hugs.

"We want to say thank you, all of you," Krikalev said. "We
are waiting for this flight for very long years, more than two
years already." (Additional reporting by Jeff Franks)