Space shuttle Discovery returns to Earth
Just 10 flights, including one in October to the Hubble telescope, remain before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
The U.S. space shuttle Discovery landed at its home port on Saturday, wrapping up a mission that gave Japan a permanent toehold in space and setting NASA up for its next mission -- a high-profile servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Shuttle commander Mark Kelly steered the spacecraft through pockets of thin clouds as it slowed from a top speed of 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 km per hour) in orbit to under the speed of sound just short of the runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Discovery touched down at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT) on a canal-lined landing strip to complete NASA's 123rd shuttle mission. Just 10 flights, including one in October to the Hubble telescope, remain before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
Discovery returns with its cargo hold nearly empty after delivering the main section of Japan's elaborate Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station.
The 32-ton module was so big, Discovery didn't have room to carry an inspection boom used to scour the spacecraft's body for damage caused during launch, and had to borrow one left aboard the station by the previous shuttle crew in March.
Checking shuttles for damage before they return to Earth has become a routine part of missions since NASA lost Columbia in 2003. Seven astronauts died when the ship broke apart as it headed toward landing in Florida.
In addition to installing Kibo, the seven-member Discovery crew delivered a new pump for the station's broken toilet and prepared the $100 billion orbital outpost for a crew of six, rather than the current three, beginning next year.
The shuttle also ferried a new station crewmember, Greg Chamitoff, to replace Garrett Reisman, who returned aboard Discovery after a three-month mission.
Reuters Last Mod: 14 Haziran 2008, 18:37