July 17, 2006

Shuttle Discovery touches down in Florida

By Deborah Zabarenko and Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - U.S. Space shuttle
Discovery landed smoothly in Florida on Monday at the end of a
13-day mission meant to show the fleet is fit to fly safely,
three years after the fatal Columbia accident.

Double sonic booms thundered over central Florida as the
shuttle glided through partly cloudy skies heading toward a
three-mile-long runway at the Kennedy Space Center.

Commander Steve Lindsey gently steered the shuttle through
a series of turns to burn off speed before the winged
spacecraft set down at 9:14 a.m. (1314 GMT).

"Welcome back Discovery. Congratulations on a great
mission," said astronaut Steve Frick from NASA's Mission
Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"Thanks. It was a great mission, a really great mission,"
said Lindsey.

Discovery's flight was the first in a year and only the
second since the 2003 Columbia disaster. The agency has spent
more than $1.3 billion on safety upgrades since the accident,
which killed seven astronauts and brought construction of the
$100 billion International Space Station to a halt.

The agency's chief concern has been to fix foam insulation
on the shuttle's external fuel tank, which triggered Columbia's
demise. The doomed spacecraft was hit by a piece of falling
foam during launch, opening a hole that let in super hot
atmospheric gases during re-entry 16 days later.

NASA had hoped to resume space station construction last
year, but Discovery's tank shed large pieces of foam during its
July 2005 liftoff, forcing the grounding of the fleet while
space agency experts worked on the problem.

When the shuttle was launched again on July 4, its tank
lost only small pieces of foam, none a threat to the spaceship
or its crew. Discovery reached the space station two days
later, transferring a new crew member to the outpost and
delivering more than 2.5 tons of supplies.

Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum made three spacewalks,
including a repair of the station's transporter so construction
of the half-built space station can resume. NASA hopes to
launch its first station assembly mission since the Columbia
accident around August 28.

The shuttle dropped off German astronaut Thomas Reiter at
the station, giving it a full three-person crew for the first
time in three years.

Spacewalkers Sellers and Fossum also tested techniques to
reach and repair heat shield damage should it occur.

The space agency plans to fly 16 shuttle missions to finish
the space station before the fleet is retired in 2010.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Houston)