Detoured by bad weather in Florida, the shuttle Discovery dropped out of orbit and swooped to a flawless California landing Friday to close out a successful space station resupply mission.
Shuttle commander Frederick "C.J." Sturckow and pilot Kevin Ford fired the shuttle's twin braking rockets at 4:47 p.m. PDT to drop the ship out of orbit for an hour-long descent to Edwards Air Force Base.
After a steep plunge across the Los Angeles basin, Sturckow took over manual control at an altitude of about 50,000 feet above the Mojave Desert landing site and guided the spaceplane through a sweeping 213-degree right overhead turn to line up on runway 22.
As Sturckow pulled the shuttle's nose up just before touchdown, Ford deployed the ship's three main landing gear and the spaceplane settled to a tire-smoking touchdown at 5:53 p.m.
"Houston, Discovery, wheels stopped," Sturckow radioed a few moments later as Discovery rolled to a halt.
"Copy, wheels stopped," replied astronaut Eric Boe in mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Welcome home, Discovery. Congratulations on an extremely successful mission, stepping up science to a new level on the International Space Station."
Mission duration was 13 days 20 hours 53 minutes and 45 seconds for a voyage spanning 5.7 million miles and 219 complete orbits since blastoff from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 28.
Sturckow, Ford and four of their five crewmates--flight engineer Jose Hernandez, Patrick Forrester, John "Danny" Olivas, and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang--doffed their pressure suits for a traditional walk-around inspection about an hour-and-a-half after landing.
"We're very happy to be back on land here in California," Sturckow said on the runway. "We wish we could have gone to Florida today, gotten to see our families down there, but it just didn't work out with the weather."
Discovery's seventh crewmember, returning space station flight engineer Timothy Kopra, made the trip to Earth strapped into a recumbent seat on the shuttle's lower deck to ease his transition back to gravity after 58 days in space.
Asked if he planned to walk off the shuttle under his own power, Kopra told CBS News earlier this week "there are some scientific experiments that require me to come off horizontally, so I won't even have the opportunity to test it out."
Like all space station crew members, Kopra exercised daily and "we have the chance to do the absolute best we can to stay in good shape. I think there may be some effects, but hopefully I'll recover quickly."
Reflecting on his stay in orbit during a news conference last week, Kopra said "this experience has completely exceeded anything that I thought it would be like, just the sights, the sounds, the experiences with a great crew and really being part of two shuttle missions. It's been absolutely phenomenal.
"The main thing, obviously, I'm looking forward to is seeing my family again, my wife and two kids. And maybe have a sip of a beer once I get home."
Kopra and his shuttle crewmates plan to fly back to Houston on Saturday for reunions with friends and family members and debriefings with mission managers and engineers.
Discovery delivered some nine tons of supplies, equipment, and fresh water to the International Space Station along with Kopra's replacement, astronaut Nicole Stott.
Over the course of a week of docked operations, the astronauts transferred two science racks, an experiment sample freezer, a new treadmill, an astronaut sleep station, a carbon dioxide removal assembly, and other supplies and equipment to the space station.
In addition, the shuttle crew carried out three spacewalks to replace a massive ammonia coolant tank, retrieve two external experiments, deploy a spare parts mounting mechanism, and string power and data cables needed for a new module that will be attached next year.
Discovery undocked from the station Tuesday to prepare for landing. The astronauts intended to land Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center, but stormy weather blocked both available landing opportunities and entry Flight Director Richard Jones told them to stay in orbit an extra day.
More of the same developed today and after waving off the first Florida opportunity, Jones threw in the towel and diverted Sturckow and company to Edwards. It will take a week to 10 days to prepare the shuttle for a ferry flight back to Florida.
"Discovery was a really great vehicle on this mission, it performed flawlessly," Sturckow said after landing. "It was a great mission, we're looking forward to getting back to Houston for the debriefs. We just want to thank everybody for their support."
Next up for NASA is launch of the shuttle Atlantis around November 9 on a mission to mount critical spare parts on the station as a hedge against future failures after the shuttle fleet is retired next year.
Aboard the space station, meanwhile, the Expedition 20 crew is moving into a particularly busy phase of flight. A new Japanese cargo ship, launched from Japan on Thursday, is scheduled to arrive next week. At the end of the month, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled for launch to carry two new crew members--Jeffrey Williams and Maxim Suraev--to the station.
Williams and Suraev will be joined for launch by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, a billionaire space tourist who is believed to have paid around $35 million for a ride to the station.
Laliberte will return to Earth on October 11 with outgoing space station commander Gennady Padalka and flight engineer Michael Barratt.