August 19, 2005

Shuttle Discovery piggybacks back to Florida

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, California (Reuters) - The space
shuttle Discovery began the return journey to its Florida home
port from its landing site in California on Friday, riding
piggyback on top of a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Discovery on August 9 completed NASA's first shuttle
mission since its sister ship, Columbia, blew apart over Texas
in February 2003, but had to land at Edwards Air Force Base in
the Mojave Desert because of thunderstorms at Cape Canaveral.

NASA prefers to use its main landing site in Florida to
save time and the roughly $1 million it costs to prepare the
shuttle and transport it across the country. A shuttle was last
carried on top of the modified jumbo back to Kennedy Space
Center in June 2002.

The U.S. space agency said on Thursday that the next
shuttle mission to the International Space Station is unlikely
to occur until next March -- a six-month delay -- while
engineers try to find out why insulating foam fell off
Discovery's external fuel tank during its July 26 liftoff.

Falling foam doomed Columbia when it knocked a hole in its
wing at launch. During the space craft's re-entry into the
Earth's atmosphere, superheated atmospheric gases tore into the
gap and ripped Columbia apart, killing all seven crew.

Discovery's return to Florida was expected to take two
days. At least two stops were planned during the 2,200-mile
(3,540-km) cross-country trek -- one in Oklahoma and another in

The 100-ton shuttle and its jet carrier fly at about 15,000
feet -- about half the altitude of commercial jet traffic.

"That's due to the amount of fuel the 747 can take on due
to the heavy orbiter on its back," said NASA spokesman Kyle