August 10, 2005

Discovery Returns to Relieved Nation

From Mission Control to Main Street, the relief was visceral: Discovery was home.

In 2003, the nation's heart sank at the sight of multiple contrails in the Texas sky, an unmistakable sign that space shuttle Columbia was disintegrating during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

So for those closest to Discovery's two-week "return to flight" mission - as well as those still grieving for Columbia's crew of seven - Tuesday's landing in California was especially nerve-racking.

Afterward, NASA launch director Mike Leinbach reminded reporters that when Discovery blasted off on July 26, he said the only thing better would be landing day.

"I'm here to tell you that it really is truly better," Leinbach said in a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the mission began.

Watching Discovery stirred bittersweet emotions for some of the families of the Columbia crew.

Dr. Jon Clark, a NASA neurologist and husband of Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark, was waiting at Kennedy to watch the landing when the space agency decided that stormy conditions there were too risky. He said the space agency was right to take "the conservative approach" and divert to Edwards Air Force base in the Mojave Desert.

During Discovery's approach, Clark quietly remembered his wife and closely compared the two missions.

"I thought, 'This is when the tire light went on,'" Clark said, referring to an initial sensor reading that Columbia was breaking up.

Future shuttle flights were grounded during the latest mission until engineers can find a better fix for the foam insulation that continues to break off during launch. Damage from foam doomed Columbia and raised doubts about Discovery's return.

At her home in Houston, near the Johnson Space Center, Evelyn Husband watched Discovery's return on television with her children and two friends. Her spouse, Rick Husband, was Columbia's commander.

She said she had been dreading the moment after 2 1/2 years of waiting. When Discovery reached the same point in its descent that Columbia broke up - and she heard the announcer recite the same fateful altitude and velocity readings - "I got a lump in my throat."

"We were very quiet," she said. "I was thinking about my husband. And when we saw the infrared image of the shuttle it made me really sad. I wish we could've seen the same thing."

Husband spoke to Discovery commander Eileen Collins and other crew members during the mission. "I knew the orbiter was in very good shape and so did they," she said.

Compliments overflowed to Collins, the nation's first female shuttle pilot, for what appeared to be a silky smooth landing in the early morning darkness. It was Collins' fourth shuttle mission and second in the commander's seat.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin joked that he might abdicate his position in favor of Collins.

"She's better looking than I am," he said, "and she's a better pilot."

In Rochester, N.Y., Collins' 79-year-old father, James, a retired postal worker, described it as "the day of my life."

In New York City, a cousin of astronaut Charles Camarda answered the phone at the Queens home of the Discovery crew member's parents. At 53, Camarda was one of the oldest first-time space fliers - a late addition because he's an expert in thermal protection.

He had joked that his 80-year old mother would need a Valium during the shuttle's descent.

"It's been a beautiful morning and it's just wonderful that they're all safe," said his cousin, Amelia Giampietro.

Astronaut Mark Polansky said he "couldn't help but think a little bit about the crew of Columbia, about the families."

"I know all of them and they would have wanted us to continue," he said. "So I know they were all watching down and helping Discovery get back through this."


Associated Press Writers Ben Dobbin in Rochester, N.Y., Deepti Hajela in New York City, Mike Schneider at the Kennedy Space Center and Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.