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Discovery returns home

July 17, 2006 By Geoff Brumfiel This article courtesy of Nature News.

Second test mission ends with only minor glitches.

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The space shuttle Discovery glided to a gentle touchdown in Florida this morning, bringing to an end a relatively smooth, 13-day mission to the International Space Station.

"It was a great mission, and we enjoyed the entry and the landing," shuttle commander Steven Lindsey told mission control shortly after the spacecraft rolled to a stop at 13:14 GMT at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Discovery's launch had come under scrutiny after a piece of foam fell from the shuttle's external fuel tank while it was still on the launchpad (foam falling from the space shuttle Columbia's tank led to its break-up during re-entry in 2003). But an examination of Discovery's underside while in space revealed no damage was done during launch, and the landing went relatively smoothly, despite a last-minute runway switch to avoid complications from the weather.

The shuttle returned to Earth without European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, who stayed behind on the station. The 48-year-old, German-born Reiter is scheduled to remain on the station for 175 days, helping to perform nearly two-dozen experiments in the life sciences, astrophysics and physics.

Observers hope that the successful completion of Discovery's mission will prove that the shuttle is ready to return to routine flights, which were discontinued in the wake of the Columbia accident. "I hope our legacy is that we closed out the return-to-flight test portion of the programme," Lindsey told ABC News ahead of Monday's landing.

NASA's next shuttle launch, of Atlantis, is scheduled for late August. It will deliver a solar array and a structural component to the space station.

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