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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Welcome Home, Discovery!

Seven astronauts flew space shuttle Discovery back to NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Saturday to end the latest construction mission to the International Space Station.

Commander Mark Kelly and Pilot Ken Ham were at the controls of Discovery as it glided through Florida skies to touch down on time at 11:15 a.m. EDT.

Kelly, Ham and Mission Specialists Karen Nyberg, Ron Garan, Mike Fossum and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide spent 14 days in orbit installing the Japanese Pressurized Module to the space station. The module is the largest section of the Japanese laboratory called "Kibo," or hope. Garrett Reisman also returned onboard Discovery. He spent three months living on the space station.

Talking to the news media a few hours after landing, the crew of STS-124 beamed about the flight.

"I think I have the best space shuttle crew of all-time," Kelly said.

Although there are more pieces to add on future flights, Fossum said the addition of Kibo made the station look nearly complete.

"It was a great feeling of accomplishment as we backed away (from the station)," he said.

Hoshide, one of the astronauts of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, spent time on Earth monitoring Kibo's preparation for space. Saying goodbye to it in orbit was not easy.

"When we went to close the hatch, that was a tender moment, it was kind of sad," he said.

NASA and Japanese officials hailed the flight just after landing.

"I can't think of a mission really that's been better than this one," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator of Space Operations. "We're starting to break that tie to planet Earth and get out and do what exploration is."

Discovery returned to its base in good shape, said Michael Leinbach, shuttle launch director.

"It's just a terrific day here at the Kennedy Space Center."

Astronaut Ron Garan came back with a unique spacewalking experience. Perched at one end of the station's long robotic arm, he swung far out and away from the shuttle and station to move a nitrogen tank into place.

"I got the impression I wasn't just looking at the Earth, I was looking at a planet hanging in space," he said.

After a night at Kennedy, the crew will fly to Ellington Field near NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA's next shuttle flight is slated for October when the crew of STS-125 is to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Source: NASA

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