Space Shuttle Discovery Returns to Earth
The space shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven astronauts landed
at Florida's Kennedy Space Center this morning at 9:08 a.m. Eastern
Time after a journey of 238 orbits around Earth and more than 6.2
million miles. The scheduled Monday landing had been delayed due to
worries over rainy, foggy conditions. Weather conditions brought the
space shuttle over an unusually wide stretch of the United States after
crossing over the country from over Vancouver, British Columbia. The
shuttle was visible over northeastern Washington, Helena, Montana,
Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi,
Alabama, Georgia and eventually Florida, the AP reported.
Commander Alan Poindexter lead the STS-131 mission to the International Space Station to deliver a multipurpose logistics module filled with science racks to be transferred to laboratories on the Space Station. The mission also featured three spacewalks by Mission Specialists Clay Anderson and Rick Mastracchio to replace an ammonia tank assembly, retrieve a Japanese experiment from the station's exterior and switch out a rate gyro assembly on an element of the station's truss. NASA noted STS-131 was the 33rd shuttle mission to the International Space Station.
As the last round trip for the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, Discovery's 13-day mission provided the station with not only some 8 tons of science equipment and cargo, but also one last opportunity to send a large load of cargo back to the ground. Leonardo serves as basically a moving van for the space station, allowing the shuttle to, first of all, deliver shipments of equipment and supplies larger than any other vehicle could accommodate, and, second, to return science experiments, unneeded hardware and trash to the ground. A mission overview document provided by NASA explained all other cargo transfer vehicles burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.
Although Leonardo will return to the station once more on the last space shuttle mission later this year-there are only four more shuttle missions planned-- this is scheduled to be its last round trip - Leonardo will remain permanently at the station after STS-133, according to NASA. So while it will deliver one more batch of goods, the cargo returning on STS-131 will be the last that it brings home.
While shuttle missions are fast becoming an adventure of the past, NASA noted the agency continues to make records. With three female crew members on board the Discovery and one already at the station, the STS-131 mission marked the first time four women have been in space at one time. As there was one Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut on each crew, the mission was also the first time for two JAXA astronauts to be in space at the same time.