After a first wave off, NASA officials brought the space shuttle Discovery home March 28. High winds and heavy cloud cover forced NASA to pass on the first of two possible landing opportunities for the day, but one orbit later mission control cleared Discovery for touch down at the Kennedy Space Station.
The landing completes a 13-day mission to the ISS (International Space Station) delivering and constructing the station's final set of solar power panels. Over three space walks, astronauts installed the $300 million solar array, increasing the platform's power to support doubling the station's full time population from three to six.
For the venerable Discovery, which first launched in 1984 and completing its 36th mission into the space, the mission involved 202 orbits of Earth and 5.3 million miles.
Discovery also started a space station crew shift circle building to its new occupancy capacity this spring. The shuttle returned with U.S. flight engineer Sandy Magnus after 134 days in space and delivered veteran Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. Hours before Discovery landed, the ISS welcomed aboard three new visitors from a Russian Soyuz TMA-14 shuttle, including billionaire and former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi.
The 28th shuttle mission to the space station also delivered and successfuly repaired the ISS' urine recycler that converts urine and sweat into potable water.
The Discovery launch was delayed by more than a month due to safety concerns about the craft's fuel pressure valves. The final delay came March 11 after NASA detected a leaky GH2 (gaseous hydrogen) vent line. Archambault and his six-person crew finally launched on March 15.
Once under way, the 13-day mission was plagued by orbiting space junk. On March 15, NASA almost rerouted the crew because a breakaway piece of a Russian satellite was likely to come close to the ISS on March 17, just one day before the Discovery was scheduled to dock at the orbiting platform. NASA finally decided to scrub the evasive maneuver.
But after the shuttle mission docked with the ISS, 10-year-old debris from a Chinese satellite forced the crews March 22 to change orbit. The week before Discovery was launched, a piece of a Russian spacecraft motor came close enough to the ISS that the three-man crew was forced to evacuate to the Soyuz TMA-13 capsule, which is attached to the space station to transport astronauts back in an emergency.
"Space debris is becoming an ever-increasing challenge. When it comes to dodging junk, it's a big deal. It's very tiring. Sometimes it's exhausting," said Flight Director Kwatsi Alibaruho.