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Launch: Feb. 7, 1999
Comet flyby: Jan. 2, 2004
Landing: Jan. 15, 2006
Capsule release: 12:57 a.m. EST (0557 GMT)
Atmospheric entry: 4:57 a.m. EST (0957 GMT)
Main chute deploy: 5:05 a.m. EST (1005 GMT)
Touchdown: 5:12 a.m. EST (1012 GMT)
Site: Utah Test and Training Range

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Stardust return preview
NASA's Stardust spacecraft encountered Comet Wild 2 two years ago, gathering samples of cometary dust for return to Earth. In this Dec. 21 news conference, mission officials and scientists detail the probe's homecoming and planned landing in Utah scheduled for January 15, 2006.

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NASA through the decades
This film looks at the highlights in NASA's history from its creation in the 1950s, through the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, birth of the space shuttle and the loss of Challenger, launch of Hubble and much more.

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STS-49: Satellite rescue
If at first you don't succeed, keep on trying. That is what the astronauts of space shuttle Endeavour's maiden voyage did in their difficult job of rescuing a wayward communications satellite. Spacewalkers were unable to retrieve the Intelsat 603 spacecraft, which had been stranded in a useless orbit, during multiple attempts using a special capture bar. So the crew changed course and staged the first-ever three-man spacewalk to grab the satellite by hand. The STS-49 astronauts describe the mission and narrate highlights in this post-flight presentation.

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First satellite repair
The mission for the crew of space shuttle Challenger's April 1984 flight was two-fold -- deploy the experiment-laden Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) and then track down the crippled Solar Max spacecraft, capture it and perform repairs during spacewalks. Initial attempts by the astronauts to grab the craft while wearing the Manned Maneuvering Unit spacewalk backpacks failed, but the crew ultimately retrieved Solar Max and installed fresh equipment while it was anchored in the payload bay. The crew narrates this post-flight presentation of home movies and highlights from mission STS-41C.

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STS-26: Back in space
The space shuttle program was grounded for 32 months in the painful wake of the 1986 Challenger accident. Americans finally returned to space in September 1988 when shuttle Discovery safely launched for its mission to deploy a NASA communications satellite. Enjoy this post-flight presentation narrated by the astronauts as they show movies and tell the story of the STS-26 mission.

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Amazing STS-51I flight
Imagine a space shuttle mission in which the astronaut crew launched two commercial and one military communications spacecraft, then conducted a pair of incredible spacewalks to recover, fix and redeploy a satellite that malfunctioned just four months earlier. The rescue mission was a success, starting with an astronaut making a catch of the spinning satellite with just his gloved-hand. Enjoy this post-flight presentation narrated by the astronauts as they tell the story of shuttle Discovery's August 1985 mission known as STS-51I.

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Discovery's debut
In our continuing look back at the classic days of the space shuttle program, today we show the STS-41D post-flight presentation by the mission's astronauts. The crew narrates this film of home movies and mission highlights from space shuttle Discovery's maiden voyage in August 1984. STS-41D deployed a remarkable three communications satellites -- a new record high -- from Discovery's payload bay, extended and tested a 100-foot solar array wing and even knocked free an icicle from the shuttle's side using the robot arm.

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"Ride of Your Life"
As the title aptly describes, this movie straps you aboard the flight deck for the thunderous liftoff, the re-entry and safe landing of a space shuttle mission. The movie features the rarely heard intercom communications between the crewmembers, including pilot Jim Halsell assisting commander Bob Cabana during the landing.

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Message from Apollo 8
On Christmas Eve in 1968, a live television broadcast from Apollo 8 offered this message of hope to the people of Earth. The famous transmission occurred as the astronauts orbited the Moon.

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Stardust hurtles toward Earth with comet dust
Posted: January 14, 2006

Blasted by icy particles striking at 4 miles per second - six times faster than a rifle bullet - NASA's armored Stardust probe flew within 143 miles of comet Wild 2 in January 2004, capturing primordial debris left over from the very birth of the solar system.

If all goes well, that priceless cargo finally will be delivered to Earth early Sunday to wrap up a marathon seven-year, 2.9-billion-mile mission, lighting up the western sky as the Stardust re-entry capsule plunges into the atmosphere at a record 28,860 mph.

"We went 2.88 billion miles in our journeys," said principal investigator Don Brownlee of the University of Washington at Seattle. "In our seven-year journey, we actually went back 4.5 billion years in time to gather these primitive samples that were just released from a comet nucleus."

The Stardust spacecraft was expected to cross the orbit of the moon at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, hurtling toward a pre-dawn Sunday landing in Utah.

"Our entire flight and recovery team will be watching this final leg of our flight with tremendous expectation as we implement a precise celestial ballet in delivering our capsule to Earth," Tom Duxbury, the Stardust project manager, said in a statement. "We feel like parents awaiting the return of a child who left us young and innocent, who now returns holding answers to the most profound questions of our solar system."

At 12:57 a.m. EST Sunday - four hours before entry - the Stardust spacecraft will release its small sample return canister on a path that will lead it to the Utah Test and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City. The mother craft then will change course to miss Earth, sailing off into solar orbit, its mission complete.

The sample return capsule, however, will slam into the discernible atmosphere 410,000 feet above northern California near the Oregon border at 4:57 a.m., some 551 miles from the landing zone. "It will light up the sky from central California through central Oregon into Nevada and on into Utah," Brownlee said. "We're coming in faster than a spacecraft has ever come back before.

Thirty-eight seconds after atmospheric entry, the return capsule will have covered half the distance to the landing zone, a target ellipse measuring 27 by 47 miles. Maximum heating will occur 52 seconds after entry at an altitude of 200,000 feet. Ten seconds later, the spacecraft will endure peak deceleration loads of 38 times the force of Earth's gravity.

"We will light up the sky, maybe up to about 30 seconds," Brownlee said. "And it should be visible in these western states. We'll finally hit our maximum temperature and maximum pressures as we near the Nevada-Utah border. We are headed toward the Utah Test and Training Range. As we slow up sufficiently, we deploy our drogue chute shortly followed by our main chute. This then takes us softly down to the ground."

Two minutes and 12 seconds after entry, the stabilizing drogue parachute will deploy as the capsule reaches a point about 20 miles directly over the landing ellipse. Forty-eight seconds later, the return capsule will begin floating straight down, entering test range airspace at an altitude of 11 miles.

Finally, at an altitude of 10,000 feet or so, the capsule's main parachute will deploy and a UHF radio transponder will begin broadcasting a locator beacon. Falling at about 10 mph, the sample return craft should hit the ground at 5:12 a.m. EST.

A recovery team will be standing by, observing the pre-dawn descent with radar and infrared cameras. Once the capsule is on the ground, the team will retrieve it, take it back to a nearby clean room, remove the sample material and prepare it for immediate shipment to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where a team of scientists will be standing by to begin analysis.

"We expect to have over 2,000 particles larger than 15 percent the diameter of a human hair," Brownlee said. "We will collect millions of particles down to millionths of a meter size. The important thing is, our sample collection goal is to collect more samples than we can analyze in like a decade. Believe it or not, these particles, even though they are small, we consider huge, giant rocks compared to our ability to analyze them. Because we're studying things literally at the atomic scale in some cases. There's a phenomenal amount of real estate in something as small as a measly DNA molecule, as you can imagine."

In September 2004, NASA's Genesis spacecraft, carrying samples of the solar wind, crashed at the Utah test range when its main parachute failed to open. Investigators later discovered critical sensors had been installed upside down. Genesis and Stardust were both built by Lockheed Martin, but engineers say closeout photographs and tests show the parachute system on Stardust should work as advertised.

"Space exploration is a tough business," Duxbury said. "But landing is not the finish line. The finish line is at the Johnson Space Center. In the event we land hard, we have a smaller and more rugged return capsule than Genesis. Our collector grid is very thick aluminum, very hard. ... So even with a hard landing, we believe we will recover most, if not all, of our science. Again, the finish line is down at JSC."

The goal of the ambitious mission is to answer long-standing questions about the cloud of dusty debris that coalesced to form the solar system and whether comets helped seed planet Earth with water and the organic building blocks of life.

"The science that's going to come out of this, that's going to tell us about the early formation of our solar system, the role that comets have played in the formation of Earth and ourselves, that will unfold over the next few years," said Duxbury. "The science that this project is returning will be unprecedented."

Comets "are the most fundamental building blocks of the solar system," said Carl Pilcher, science director for solar system exploration at NASA headquarters when Stardust was launched. "The solar system formed from the same material, but that material is only present today in the sun. The problem is the sun is all atomic elements and ions, it doesn't preserve any of the chemistry, it doesn't preserve any of the molecules.

"But comets do," he said. "In fact, they preserve not only some of the rocks and metals but they also preserve the ices and organics, which are really fundamental. Because the Earth and the other large bodies that formed close to the sun lost all their original ices and organics (because of) a combination of heating from the sun as well as the heat from the formation of the planets themselves."

But not comets, the dirty snowballs Hanner referred to as frozen time capsules.

"Comets are the stuff that life is made of," Pilcher said. "The organics we find in meteorites, which we think are similar to the organics we would find in comets, contain lots of amino acids and amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. So comets probably delivered lots of amino acids to Earth as well as enough water to fill Earth's oceans.

"The fact that life on Earth formed very quickly after the Earth formed itself is probably due to all this material that was brought into Earth by comets," Pilcher concluded. "Comets probably delivered this same material to Venus and Mars as well, so comets are a link between our study of the formation of the solar system and our study of the biological potential of Mars."

Said co-investigator Martha Hanner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "Comets can tell us about the history of the early solar system and the early history, perhaps, of our own Earth. Comets formed four-and-a-half billion years ago along with the planets. Whereas planet Earth and other planets have undergone lots of geological changes since that time, the comets ... we see today have been essentially parked in cold storage for much of the four-and-a-half-billion-year history of our solar system. So they're truly frozen time capsules and that's why we're so interested in them."

The Stardust probe began its seven-your voyage Feb. 7, 1999, with a near perfect launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida atop a Boeing Delta 2 rocket. Built by Lockheed Martin under a $91.2 million contract, Stardust was the fourth in a series of low-cost Discovery-class missions launched by NASA as part of former Administrator Daniel Goldin's "faster, cheaper, better" approach to interplanetary exploration.

The target of the Stardust mission was comet Wild 2, which spent virtually its entire life in the outer solar system. In 1974, however, the comet made a close flyby of Jupiter, which deflected it into a different orbit that has since carried it around the sun three times. Compared to other short-period comets, Wild-2 is believed to be relatively pristine, providing an unprecedented window on the birth of the solar system.

After a velocity-boosting Earth flyby in 2001, Stardust finally caught up with the comet on Jan. 2, 2004. The probe's trajectory was designed, in a sense, to let the comet run over the spacecraft from the right rear at about six times the speed of a rifle bullet. Just before closest approach, a two-sided 14-inch-wide dust collector shaped like a tennis racket was extended into the dust stream. Cells on the back side of collector were used earlier in the flight to collect interstellar dust grains. Both sides feature 132 cells filled with aerogel, an ultra low-density material invented in 1933. Sometimes referred to as frozen smoke, aerogel is made by mixing silica and a solvent.

Aerogel is "the magic material that makes this possible," said Joseph Vellinga, Lockheed Martin's Stardust program manager. "A particle hitting aerogel at hyper velocity essentially forms a little heat shield in front in the aerogel as it melts. The particles are coming in at about six times the speed of a rifle bullet, about 14,000 mph. As the kinetic energy is absorbed, you're melting the aerogel as you bring it to a stop in one to three centimeters or so. A lot of kinetic energy is absorbed in the aerogel, keeping the heating of the particle down [below 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit], preserving the organic materials."

Engineers monitoring radio signals from the spacecraft erupted in cheers and applause as the moment of closest approach came and went with little or no degradation in the stream of data flowing back to Earth. That steady signal meant Stardust had survived its unprecedented encounter with comet Wild-2.

Along with successfully collecting samples, the spacecraft's navigation camera snapped 72 photos of Wild-2's frozen nucleus as the spacecraft made its final approach.

"We were stunned when we got to the comet and saw incredible features, we saw steep cliffs, overhanging cliffs, we saw spires and many features that oddly enough had never been seen on other solar system bodies," Brownlee told reporters last month.

While scientists can determine a comet's elemental composition remotely, they need actual samples to study the structure of the particles and "tell how that particle may have formed or whether it had a previous history before it was frozen into the comet," Hanner said. "What's often very telling about the history of a little particle is looking at the elements that are not very abundant, isotope ratios, or looking for traces of organic material. Those are only there in very small amounts."

"On planet Earth, we can have a very sophisticated laboratory with electron microscopes and many other instruments you couldn't possibly bundle and fly in a spacecraft," she said.