After weeks of pre-launch controversy and days of postponements on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, the crew of STS-121, Space Shuttle Discovery, rode safely into space on the Fourth of July. Nearly two weeks later, earlier today, the crew minus one astronaut, who was delivered to the International Space Station (ISS), returned safely to their home base in Florida. Their mission was flawless. In a post-landing briefing, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said, "It's a real honor for me to be here as part of this team."
They flew 5.3 million miles around the Earth in a little over 12 days and 18 hours to perform the dual mission of testing shuttle safety improvements to okay future assignments and carrying new ISS crewmate Thomas Reiter (of the European Space Agency) to the space station, make repairs, and re-stock it with supplies.
Firing its de-orbit engines for three minutes at 7:07 a.m. CDT high above the Indian Ocean to begin descent, Commander Steve Lindsey guided the ship over the Pacific Ocean, Central America, and the Gulf of Mexico to a pinpoint touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center's Runway 15 at 8:15 a.m. CDT, according to NASA. Returning to Earth, with Lindsey were Pilot Mark Kelly and Mission Specialists Mike Fossum, Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson, and Piers Sellers (see our previous entry on Discovery in this space for more on the crew).
After landing, Lindsey led the crew and ground technicians on the traditional post-flight vehicle inspection. "I have been on four flights, and this is the cleanest vehicle I've ever seen," said Lindsey. NASA Launch Director Mike Leinbach said, "Discovery is in outstanding condition. We had to search for dings to the tiles, and the couple we saw were very, very minor."
Later today, Discovery will be towed to the Orbiter Processing Facility where it will be further inspected and readied for its next flight. The success of STS-121, which had met with a great deal of pre-flight safety concern among program administrators, clears the way for NASA to concentrate on completing an ambitious schedule of 17 more assignments, many to help complete the ISS. The next shuttle mission, STS-115, to be flown by Space Shuttle Atlantis, is targeted for late August or early September.
"We had two major objectives and we accomplished both of those, and we're ready to assemble the space station," said Lindsey of the Discovery crew's efforts the last two weeks.
"I think you've seen what the team can accomplish—they're as motivated and skilled a group of people as I've ever had the opportunity to work with," Griffin noted proudly.
Nice flying, STS-121.