Spaceflight Now: STS-92 Mission Report

Discovery's homecoming takes detour to California

Posted: 05:05 p.m. EDT, October 24, 2000
Updated: 06:15 p.m.

A collection of pictures from Discovery's landing today at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Photos: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
Running two days late, the Discovery astronauts glided to a picture-perfect Mojave Desert touchdown today, finally closing out a marathon space station assembly flight that clears the way for launch of the lab's first full-time crew in just one week.

With commander Brian Duffy and pilot Pamela Melroy at the controls, Discovery rattled Los Angeles with dual sonic booms as it plunged through a clear blue sky toward Edwards Air Force Base in California's high desert.

Taking manual control at 50,000 feet, Duffy - like Melroy, an Edwards veteran - deftly steered the black-and-white spaceplane through a sweeping right overhead turn, lined up on runway 22 and guided the ship to a smooth landing at 4:59:41 p.m. EDT.

"Wheels stopped, Houston," Duffy radioed Houston as Discovery coasted to a halt.

"Copy wheels stopped, Brian. Your great landing today made everybody happy at Edwards Air Force Base," replied astronaut Dominic Gorie from mission control in Houston. "Welcome back to Earth after a super successful mission."

"It's great to be back," Duffy replied.

The 100th shuttle mission covered 5.3 million miles and 202 complete orbits since blastoff from the Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 11. It was the first shuttle touchdown in California since March 31, 1996, breaking a string of 23 straight Florida landings.

But NASA managers had no choice. Dangerously high crosswinds buffeted Florida Sunday, Monday and again today and even Edwards had problems Monday with low clouds and rain.

But the weather at Edwards was ideal today and Discovery finally landed on its 10th deorbit opportunity in three days.

"Boy, it's great to get to the end," Duffy told flight controllers in Houston before leaving the shuttle. "We want to thank everybody there, I know you guys worked really hard to get us down. The hard calls are the hard ones to make and you guys made them. We appreciate you doing that.

"Thanks for bringing us home. We were thinking this morning maybe the wakeup music might be "It Don't Come Easy." But this is great, it was worth waiting for and we couldn't have done it without all of you."

"Well Brian, it was our pleasure, it looked like a perfect landing," Gorie replied.

Duffy, Melroy, flight engineer William McArthur, Leroy Chiao, Peter "Jeff" Wisoff, Michael Lopez-Alegria and Japanese robot arm operator Koichi Wakata plan to spend the night at Edwards and to fly back to the Johnson Space Center early Wednesday.

Duffy and company left the space station 10 tons more massive than when they arrived, attaching a $273 million structural truss, a new $20 million shuttle airlock and staging four back-to-back spacewalks to hook everything up.

The Z1 truss houses the station's main communications antennas and four massive gyroscopes that will keep the outpost stable and properly oriented. The truss also will serve as the attachment point for a huge set of solar arrays scheduled for delivery in early December.

"A wise friend of mine told me some time ago that the road to success is always under construction," said shuttle program manager Ronald Dittemore. "We had our fair share of bumps and potholes. ... But once we got rolling, this flight crew and this team did a tremendous job.

"They installed the Z1 truss, they added a new docking port, they performed four fabulous spacewalks and they culminated today's activities with a picture-perfect landing," Dittemore said. "I couldn't be more happy and pleased with the results of this mission."

With Discovery back on the ground, NASA is shifting its focus to the Oct. 31 launch of the space station's first full-time crew aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Station commander William Shepherd, Soyuz commander Yuri Gidzenko and flight engineer Sergei Krikalev are scheduled to blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan at 2:53 a.m. EDT next Tuesday.

If all goes well, Gidzenko will oversee an automatic docking with the space station at 4:20 a.m. Nov. 2. From that point forward, NASA managers hope, the station will be permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronaut-researchers.

Shepherd's crew will be limited to using just two of the station's three pressurized modules - the Zarya propulsion module and the Zvezda command module - until the shuttle Endeavour can deliver the P6 solar arrays in early December.

Until then, NASA's roomy multi-hatch Unity module will be sealed off as part of a strategy to maximize solar heating on the newly installed Z1 truss to keep the station's dormant gyroscopes warm. The truss is attached to Unity's upward-facing hatch while the new docking port is bolted to a hatch that faces Earth. Once the arrays are in place atop the Z1 truss, the station will have more than enough electricity to power internal gyro heaters as needed.

But until then, Unity will be too warm for comfort in the station's current orientation and barring an emergency, Shepherd's crew will have to settle for relatively cramped quarters.

Shepherd's crew is known as "Expedition One," or "Increment One," of the international space station's full-time roster. They are scheduled to be replaced in February by the Increment Two crew, made up of station commander Yuri Usachev, Susan Helms and James Voss.

Usachev and his crewmates will be ferried to the station aboard shuttle Discovery, scheduled for launch on assembly mission 5A.1 on Feb. 15. Shepherd's crew then will take their places aboard Discovery for the return to Earth.

Given the high-profile nature of the flight, NASA wanted to get Discovery back on the ground in Florida this week if at all possible to minimize ground processing delays.

But today's landing in California will add up to two weeks to Discovery's ground processing flow and cost NASA about $1 million. But Dittemore said ground crews in Florida have "a fair amount of margin" in the schedule, including 13 holidays and six as-yet-unused weekend days.

"I see no reason why we can't aim for the middle of February," he said.

Discovery's initial attempt to land in Florida on Sunday was blocked by crosswinds gusting to nearly 20 mph from a high pressure system over the East Coast. NASA's daylight end-of-mission flight rules limit crosswinds to just 15 knots.

It was even worse Monday in Florida, with crosswinds gusting to 24 knots by 10:30 a.m. Duffy and Melroy were told to ignore their first landing opportunity and to prepare instead for the first of three back-to-back shots at Edwards.

But Edwards had its own problems, primarily a low deck of broken clouds at 6,000 feet that violated a flight rule requiring generally clear sky below 8,000 feet. As a result, the crew skipped the first California landing opportunity in hopes conditions would improve later in the day.

They did not, and the astronauts ultimately were ordered to remain in orbit one more day. Once again, Florida's blustery weather forced to crew to head for Edwards. But this time around, conditions were ideal and landing was uneventful.

Video vault
Space shuttle Discovery touches down on Runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base in California to conclude its highly successful mission.
  PLAY (339k, 38sec QuickTime file)
Commander Brian Duffy pilots shuttle Discovery along the Heading Alignment Cylinder -- an imaginary circle -- to align with Runway 22.
  PLAY (311k, 1min47sec QuickTime file)
A camera positioned on the north side of Runway 22 provides a dramatic view of space shuttle Discovery's landing.
  PLAY (312k, 32sec QuickTime file)

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