The U.S. space shuttle Discovery has returned to Earth after a mission to continue assembly of the International Space Station. VOA's David McAlary reports.
Discovery touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida about 90 minutes later than originally planned because of a weather delay. The control tower welcomed Commander Mark Polansky and six other astronauts back to Earth to spend Christmas with their families after 12 days in orbit.
Control Tower: "Congratulations on what was probably the most complex assembly mission to date."
Polansky: "Thanks for the words. You've got seven thrilled people right here and we're just really proud of the entire NASA team to put this together. So thank you, and I think it's going to be a great holiday."
If bad weather had continued in Florida, NASA had plans to bring the shuttle back to one of two reserve landing strips, either Edwards Air Force Base, California or White Sands, New Mexico -- both desert locations.
The space agency normally does not open these backup sites for the first day of landing opportunities, but it was eager to bring Discovery back home as close to schedule as possible on Friday. The shuttle did not have enough fuel to keep it in orbit beyond Saturday because NASA extended the visit to the space station one day, and a Saturday touch down would have been a close call.
In the end, the backup sites were not necessary because weather cleared in Florida, where shuttles are launched. This saves NASA one million dollars in costs to transport Discovery there on the back of a jet airliner and allows more time to refurbish it for its next mission.
During its visit to the space station, the shuttle delivered a new section for the outpost's girder-like backbone. It also brought up a new crewmember, astronaut Sunita Williams, to replace Thomas Reiter of Germany, who returned to Earth on Discovery after nearly six months on the station.
While in orbit, Discovery's astronauts took three spacewalks to rewire the research outpost to accept a new pair of solar panels delivered on the previous shuttle flight in September.
Discovery's visit was extended a day to permit an unscheduled fourth spacewalk. The astronauts had to go back outside to fold an old solar array that had stubbornly refused to retract mechanically.
The next shuttle mission to the station is set for March, when the orbiter Atlantis is to bring another set of solar power wings. The additional electricity is necessary to prepare the outpost to accept future European and Japanese laboratories.