With Commander Pamela Melroy at the controls, the Discovery orbiter touched down on the tarmac of Cape Canaveral today at 1:01 pm local time. By the time the space shuttle's wheels had rolled to a stop, the crew of the current mission, known as STS-120, had logged some 6.25 million miles in flight around the Earth. And in the words of the old joke, "Boy, were their wings tired."
After unbuckling from their seats, two of the crew had to be assisted from the spacecraft. For obvious reasons, Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson, newly returned from a stay of nearly five months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), could not find his land legs, a normal reaction after living in weightlessness so long. Somewhat puzzling, though, was the situation of Mission Specialist Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency, who also had to be helped off the shuttle and given medical attention. Nespoli had served as a consultant from Italy on the delivery of Discovery's main payload, the Italian-built Harmony crew portal.
According to an afternoon statement from NASA, both astronauts were receiving extra medical evaluation but said they were feeling fine.
The end of the 15-day mission closed a chapter on one of the most hectic missions in the long history of the shuttle transport system. The STS-120 crew had originally been tasked with making key upgrades to the ISS, such as attaching the Harmony module and deploying an extension to the portside solar-power array, but ran into some unexpected problems that taxed their efforts to the maximum (see our recent blog entry "Shuttle Leaves Space Station a Better Place").
The other four returning astronauts under Melroy's command, Pilot George Zamka and Mission Specialists Scott Parazynski, Doug Wheelock, and Stephanie Wilson joined in the traditional post-flight inspection of Discovery and pronounced their vehicle to be in good shape.
"We could not have done this mission without Discovery being as clean and beautiful as it was," Melroy said on the runway. "I think the whole agency had to pull together for this particular mission. We saw a lot of very unusual things happen."
The STS-120 re-entry approach was a bit unusual this time. Mission controllers gave Discovery permission to fly across the continental United States, as opposed to the normal oversea pattern used by shuttles, because Melroy wanted to land during the day and to allow her crew to get some extra rest after such a long and arduous experience.
The work her crew had pulled off, despite the setbacks, put the effort to build the final components of the ISS in space back on schedule. It literally was a mission that was "one for the record books," as a NASA spokesperson said recently.
"It's a thrilling day for both the space shuttle and the space station programs," Melroy added. "We are thrilled to be back home."