Leaving the repaired Hubble Space Telescope behind in orbit, the shuttle Discovery's crew ended the century's final manned space flight today with a ghostly nighttime landing.
Delayed one 96-minute orbit by stiff crosswinds, Cmdr. Curtis Brown guided the 110-ton spaceplane to a smooth touchdown at 7:01 p.m. at the Kennedy Space Center to close out a near-perfect eight-day mission.
"Houston, Discovery, wheels stopped," Brown radioed as Discovery coasted to a halt.
"Roger, wheels stopped, Discovery. Welcome back to Earth after a fantastic flight," replied astronaut Scott Altman from mission control in Houston.
It was the 13th night landing in shuttle history, and Discovery's fiery trail in the upper atmosphere was visible to observers from southern Texas to the Gulf Coast.
Appropriately enough, Discovery's return was heralded by the Hubble Space Telescope, sparkling like a brilliant star as it passed 380 miles above Florida a few minutes before the shuttle's touchdown.
Thanks to three marathon spacewalks by Discovery's crew last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, astronomers hope to resume science observations in early January after a two-month hiatus.
"Astronomy is one of the most incredible things people can do," astronomer-astronaut John Grunsfeld said, standing on the runway in front of Discovery. "I'm extremely excited we were able to play a part getting Hubble back into shape."
Discovery's return to Earth came two days before a NASA-imposed Y2K landing deadline designed to make sure Discovery was back on the ground and safely powered down before the end-of-year computer rollover. NASA managers are confident the shuttle's flight software and the computers that monitor the spacecraft on the ground will not be affected by the rollover from 1999 to 2000 but set the deadline as a precaution.
Discovery's crew planned to fly back to Houston early Tuesday for belated holiday reunions with friends and family members. Engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., meanwhile, will spend the next two weeks checking out the Hubble's new equipment and gearing up to resume astronomical observations.
Hubble has been in scientific shutdown since Nov. 13, when the fourth of six stabilizing gyroscopes failed, leaving the observatory with one less than the bare minimum needed for science.
That problem was corrected last Wednesday when astronauts Steven Smith and Grunsfeld installed six new gyroscopes, along with a half-dozen voltage regulators to keep Hubble's batteries from overheating.
The next day, Michael Foale and Claude Nicollier installed a faster flight computer and a refurbished guidance sensor that should let Hubble track its targets with even greater stability. Smith and Grunsfeld then wrapped up the repair work Friday by installing a new radio transmitter, a state-of-the-art data recorder and three insulation blankets to protect sensitive electronic gear.
While they were unable to install all the insulation blankets they carried into orbit, the astronauts accomplished all of their high-priority objectives, restoring the telescope to good health. NASA hopes to operate the satellite until 2010.