March 28, 2009

Safe Landing For Discovery

The space shuttle Discovery and its seven-member crew landed safely at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday, concluding a 13-day mission that spanned more than 5 million miles and 202 orbits.

The landing was slightly delayed due to some cloudy and windy weather that had forced NASA's Mission Control to push back Discovery's homecoming by about 90 minutes. 

But a shift in winds allowed conditions to improve enough for the crew to make the second, and final, landing opportunity for the day.

"That's great news," an AFP report quoted commander Lee Archambault as saying upon hearing that the weather had cleared.

Discovery's return marked the end of a construction mission that left the international space station with all its solar wings and the extra electrical power needed to support a larger crew and additional research.  The crew also helped repair the space station's recycling machine, which converts astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water.

NASA was also conducting a test of the shuttle's heat shield as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico, and on into Florida.  The new tile, which had a slight bump, was attached beneath Discovery's left wing to alter the hypersonic airflow. NASA engineers wanted to assess the extra heat generated on downstream tiles, which were designed as an improvement for the new spacecrafts that will replace the shuttles when they are retired in 2010.

Among those on board as Discovery made its trip home was former space station resident Sandra Magnus, who flew up to the space station last November.   A Japanese astronaut replaced her on March 15. 
Saturday marked Magnus' 134th day in orbit.
The shuttle is also returning with five months worth of samples from the space station, mostly urine, blood and saliva samples collected by crewmembers.  The astronauts also brought back about five liters of recycled water that had been the crew's own urine and sweat, produced with the new urine processor that fixed the recycling machine.

NASA aims to have the water samples tested within 30 days. If the toxicology results are good, the three space station residents will be given the go-ahead to begin drinking the recycled water.

Discovery's astronauts performed three spacewalks to install the solar wings and perform other maintenance activities.  However, they were unable to successfully deploy two equipment storage platforms after one of the shelves jammed.  NASA now has until later this year to properly install the new shelves, which will house critical spare parts for the space station.

A Russian Soyuz capsule arrived at the space station just three days after Discovery's departure.  Onboard the Soyuz were an American and a Russian, who will trade places with commander Mike Fincke and cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov, who have been at the space station the last six months. Former Microsoft executive and billionaire space tourist Charles Simonyi also flew up on the Soyuz for a 1 1/2-week visit to the space station.


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