Returning their troubled shuttle home from a disappointing voyage, astronauts Joe Henry Engle and Richard H. Truly brought the Columbia back from two days in space today to a perfect landing in California's Mojave Desert.

Delayed four times at liftoff by nagging mechanical problems and shortened three days in flight by a dead fuel cell, Engle and Truly flew their spaceliner through stiff crosswinds to a flawless touchdown at 4:23 p.m. EST on a dried-out lake bed called Runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base with almost a quarter of a million people looking on.

Less than half an hour earlier, the astronauts had been targeted for an alternate runway to find out how Columbia behaved in a high crosswind but were waved off when the winds at that runway gusted far beyond the allowable 20 knots.

If their flight was a short one, Engle and Truly still became the first men to fly a previously used spacecraft. Built to be used again and again, the Columbia proved today that it has that capability.

"It's a great day for the Ace Moving Company," astronaut Frederick Hauck called out from Houston's Mission Control Center when Columbia's nose wheel kissed the desert floor. "Welcome home."

After the landing and a postflight physical exam, Engle told a cheering crowd, "I'm sorry we got you out here a couple of days early. Not as sorry as I am for Dick and me, but sorry."

Echoed Truly: "We were just beginning to get the feel of it. I wish we could have had two more days of it, but it made more sense to come home today."

The astronauts also lavished the Columbia with praise. "The real hero of this is still sitting out here on the lake bed," Truly said, waving his arm at the shuttle. "That is some kind of flying machine."

Engle broke in on Truly and said: "That is one magnificent flying machine and you can spread the word around. We got us a good one."

The spaceliner returned home the second time in a lot better shape than it did at the end of its maiden flight last April. On early inspection, technicians could count no missing tiles out of the more than 31,000 glass fiber tiles that cover the shuttle's fuselage to protect it from the heat of reentry.

A few tiles were blistered and six tiles lost their protective coating to the heat of reentry, the technicians reported. On the first flight last April, Columbia lost 16 tiles and suffered more than 400 damaged tiles.

"This was a much cleaner bird from a tile point of view," said L. Michael Weeks, acting associate administrator for manned space flight. "As to the famous tile problem, it's getting better."

The flawless landing put a bright face on a flight that must otherwise be described as troubled because it had been cut from five days to slightly more than two. Despite the abbreviated time in orbit, shuttle managers said Engle and Truly accomplished between 80 and 90 percent of what they set out to do, completing most of their objectives in their 54 hours in space.

If there were any frowns among the flight directors and shuttle managers who run this intricate $10 billion program, they turned to smiles today when Engle and Truly flew in over the Mojave Desert at 50,000 feet right on time and right on the ground track they were supposed to follow.

The first sign that Engle and Truly had come home was the sharp crack of their sonic boom as they crossed the eastern edge of Edwards Air Force Base. That crack was followed immediately by the boom of the chase plane that flew behind Columbia all the way from the California coast.

"Everything's looking right on the money, Joe," Hauck said as Engle put the spaceliner into a steep banking turn to line it up with the runway. "Just look out for the crosswinds."

"Sounds like a good old Eddie day," Engle replied, a reference to the windy weather that often visits Edwards Air Force Base, a testing range where Engle served as an X15 pilot almost 20 years ago.

Assuming control of the spaceliner from its computers and autopilot, Engle ended his banking turn lined up perfectly with the runway.

With the craft's nose flared up the last 2,000 feet, Columbia looked for all the world like a huge waterfowl settling in on its favorite leg at the end of the day.

If it was errant early in flight, Columbia behaved well today. Nothing went wrong from the time the astronauts were awakened to the tune of "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean" sung by a group of flight controllers, who call themselves "The Contrabands," to the time they touched down to the cheers of more than 200,000 people waving American flags here in the desert.

"The bird is real solid, a good solid bird all the way," Engle said as they crossed the coastline just south of Monterey over the Big Sur country.

Responded Hauck from Houston: "We love hearing it."

Flying almost four times the speed of sound, Columbia was picked up for the first time by the television camera aboard one of four T38 chase planes flown by other astronauts when it had decended to an altitude of 90,000 feet. A tiny white speck against the dark blue sky, Columbia zipped over the San Joaquin Valley and in over the western edge of Edwards Air Force Base in a matter of seconds.

Less than three minutes after being sighted with the naked eye, Columbia was on the runway, rolling so smoothly to a deadstick stop that it barely kicked up the dust cloud that normally rises from the desert floor when test pilots touch down in their high-performance aircraft.

Waiting while technicians used long nozzled instruments to check the spacecraft for noxious fumes that might be venting from fuel tanks, Engle and Truly stepped spryly down their landing ladder at 5:06 p.m. EST, just 43 minutes after they landed.

Wearing broad grins while they walked over to kick their tires, the two astronauts hardly looked like men disappointed in their curtailed two-day space flight.

On their last day in flight, the astronauts heard a live performance of three of the Muppets (including Miss Piggy) performing an episode of "Pigs in Space" for the crew and wishing farewell "to Joe Henry and Richard."

Full of energy, the astronauts called down to Mission Control with the news that they had repaired a video display console in their cockpit that had gone dark the day before.

"Okay, you get the golden wrench," astronaut Dan Brandenstein said from Houston.

"Dan, if you want us to fix that fuel cell, just stretch out the mission to five days and we'll do it," Engle replied.

At the end of their 36th orbit of the Earth, Engle and Truly rolled the craft upside down over the Indian Ocean and turned it backwards so they could burn their engines to slow down and begin their descent.

Flying over the western edge of New Guinea, Engle and Truly entered the atmosphere near Guam over the South Pacific at an altitude of 400,000 feet.

Flying more than 20 times the speed of sound, the astronauts entered a 15-minute radio blackout while the underbelly of the spaceliner heated up to temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees.

The blackout comes because the heat of friction with the atmosphere electrifies the gasses in the atmosphere and blocks radio signals both coming in and going out.

After returning to Texas tonight, Engle told a crowd of about 300, "You can be proud of the talent that's right here in Houston and made this whole thing possible." Truly added: "We've really had a lot of fun."