The five-man crew of Discovery flew back to Earth today, ending a seven-day mission that included a repair job in space on an $85 million satellite.
"I would have to characterize this mission as near to perfect as you can get," Jesse W. Moore, NASA's associate administrator, said at a post-landing news conference at Edwards Air Force Base in California. "It was a perfect mission from the outset, one that shows America's space program at work."
Gliding out of cloudless skies, the space shuttle touched down in a strong headwind at 9:16 a.m. EDT. The landing came eight minutes before sunrise in a setting with purple mountains in the background and a sky full of the vivid pinks and blues of a desert dawn.
"I've never seen a better sight than I saw going in on final [approach] this morning," Discovery commander Joe H. Engle said later. "We had a great flight and there isn't time to thank all the people who made this flight go."
Not only did the 20th shuttle mission's crew members successfully deploy three communications satellites, they apparently succeeded in salvaging a lifeless Navy communications satellite.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also collected more revenue from this flight than from any previous shuttle mission. NASA was paid $8.5 million for the salvage mission and $42 million for deploying satellites for the American Satellite Co., the Australian government and Hughes Communications Corp.
The satellite revived after more than four lifeless months showed every sign today that it was no longer a useless space machine. Commands sent to it from the Pacific island of Guam increased its spin rate to 24 revolutions a minute, a move that stabilizes the satellite and starts to warm it up in the cold seas of space.
"The temperatures we're seeing on the satellite are now higher than anybody anticipated," Moore said. "Everything about this salvage attempt has gone off like clockwork."
Joining Engle, 53, an Air Force colonel, on the flight were Air Force Lt. Col. Richard O. Covey, 39; Dr. James D. van Hoften, 41, an engineer; Dr. William F. Fisher, 39, a physician, and John M. Lounge, 39, an engineer.
"Ox" von Hoften and Fisher, in their weekend spacewalks, worked as the flight's satellite repairmen.
Moore said he hopes there will be only two more landings in California before shuttle pilots can resume landing here in Florida. The shuttle was rerouted to Edwards after brakes failed and a tire blew out on a landing last April on the hard concrete runway at the Kennedy Space Center here.
"That landing was made into a stiff crosswind, which forced the pilots to brake hard on one side to stay on the runway," Moore said. "We have a new nose wheel steering system we'll try out on Challenger in early November that we hope will eliminate our brake problem."