The space shuttle Discovery dropped from a starry pre-dawn sky and coasted to a smooth, safe stop in the California high desert early Tuesday, capping the nation's first return to manned spaceflight since sister ship Columbia exploded over Texas in February 2003.
The uneventful descent and apparently perfect landing concluded a voyage of 5.8 million miles and 219 orbits around Earth over 14 occasionally nerve-racking days. Shuttle crew and controllers confronted the hazards posed first by a piece of foam insulation that ripped away on takeoff -- a shocking event that forced the delay of all upcoming missions -- and later by protruding tile filler that was removed in a historic spacewalk, and finally by the ominous clouds hovering over the original landing spot in Florida.
In the end, the landing was diverted from Kennedy Space Center because of bad weather on both Monday and Tuesday mornings. NASA officials were careful to characterize the mission's success as only a first step in getting the program back on track. The shuttle fleet remains grounded -- threatening President Bush's push to finish building the international space station within five years and return humans to the moon within 15 -- until engineers can identify what caused the Discovery to shed foam insulation.
While the foam loss apparently left no scars, similar foam shedding during Columbia's takeoff left damage to its exterior that caused the orbiter to disintegrate and burn upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere.
The grounding of the shuttle fleet cast serious doubt on the possibility of a shuttle launch next month.
-- Amy Argetsinger
and Guy Gugliotta