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Space shuttle Discovery lands after 13-day mission

By Seema Hakhu Kachru in Houston
Last updated on: December 23, 2006 09:57 IST
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Despite last-minute worries over the landing venue due to bad weather, space shuttle Discovery and its seven-member crew returned to Earth safely after successfully rewiring the International Space Station, the current home of Indian-American astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams.

Discovery touched down on a floodlit runway at 5.32 pm EST on Friday (0358 IST, Saturday) at NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, concluding a smooth 13-day flight.

Before setting foot on the runway, each crew member underwent a brief medical exam inside the Crew Hatch Access Vehicle.

After receiving the doctors nod, Commander Mark Polansky and his team were greeted by NASA officials, including Administrator Michael Griffin, before taking a walk around Discovery to inspect the spacecraft.

While thanking mission control after landing, veteran spaceflyer and Discovery's commander Polansky said: "You have seen thrilled people right here. I think it's going to be a great holiday. We're just really proud of the entire NASA team and thank you."

Returning to Earth alongside Polansky were Discovery pilot William Oefelein, mission specialists Nicholas Patrick, Robert Curbeam, Joan Higginbotham and European Space Agency astronauts Christer Fuglesand and Thomas Reiter.

The astronauts had to wait one extra orbit to land at KSC due to the weather, NASA said.

Patrick and Reiter, who came back from a six-months stay at the space station, felt the pull of gravity for the first time since July.

It was not until about an hour before the landing that NASA decided where to bring the shuttle home. There were showers over Florida, and crosswinds at the back-up landing site Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojaye Desert.

NASA was not thrilled about another landing site White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico as it lacked the equipment needed to transport the shuttle back to its home at Cape Canaveral. Only once has a ship landed there in 1982.

Finally, NASA gave the green light for Florida, and when it appeared that the rain would not reach Cape Canaveral.

Discovery was launched on December 9 and arrived at the station on December 11. The crew installed the P5 spacer truss segment during the first of four spacewalks.

Spacewalkers rewired the station's power system during the second and third spacewalks, leaving it in a permanent setup. A fourth spacewalk was added to allow the crew to retract solar arrays that had folded improperly.

Discovery also delivered a new crew member Sunita Williams and more than two tons of equipment and supplies to the station, most of which were located in the SPACEHAB cargo module.

Almost two tons of items no longer needed on the station returned to Earth with Discovery.

The crew spent almost 13 days in space and travelled 5.3 milion statute miles. The mission was the 117th space shuttle flight and 33rd by Discovery.

STS-116 also was the 20th shuttle mission to visit the space station. STS-117 is scheduled to launch no earlier than March.

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Seema Hakhu Kachru in Houston
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