SPACE shuttle Discovery lands in Florida, brings space station crew back home

Wednesday, August 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth on Wednesday, bringing home two Americans and one Russian who spent almost six months living and working on the international space station.

The shuttle touched down at 2:23 p.m.

Discovery and its crew of seven had to take an extra swing around the world because of thick, dark clouds and rain that developed near the landing strip late in the morning. The weather went from perfect to poor within a couple hours, but improved just in time for the second and final try of the day.

Nonetheless, the sky was still cloudy and some sprinkles were felt after Mission Control gave Discovery's pilots the final go-ahead to fire their braking rockets, with only minutes to spare. ``A close call,'' said NASA commentator Rob Navias.

Discovery left the space station on Monday after dropping off a fresh three-man crew and retrieving commander Yuri Usachev and his crewmates, Jim Voss and Susan Helms.

Their adventure, as they call it, began with their launch aboard Discovery back in March and lasted 167 days _ just 21 days shy of NASA's space endurance record. They circled Earth about 2,600 times and logged 70 million miles.

``Welcome home to all of you, and especially Yuri, Susan and Jim. It's great to have you back on Earth,'' Mission Control said after Discovery rolled to a safe stop.

Before reaching Florida, Discovery passed directly over Houston at 16 times the speed of sound. Space station flight controllers had warned the orbiting outpost's new commander, Frank Culbertson, that they might be busy at about that time.

``If you call us, we may not be able to answer because we might be outside watching it go over,'' Mission Control said. Culbertson chuckled and replied: ``Understand.''

Usachev, Voss and Helms face at least six weeks of rehabilitation. Muscles and bones weaken in weightlessness, and the immune system becomes depressed. They exercised each day on the space station to stay as strong as possible and rode back to Earth in reclining seats to ease the jolt of gravity.

``They're very well conditioned, all things considered,'' said Dr. Terry Taddeo, a NASA flight surgeon. ``I don't see that we're going to have any problem with them.''

Besides ferrying up the space station's new crew, Discovery delivered 10,600 pounds of supplies and equipment during its 12-day mission. It returned with about 3,800 pounds of trash, discarded equipment and personal belongings of the station's former crew.

The new crew _ Culbertson and Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin _ will remain on the space station until December. NASA's next shuttle flight, by Endeavour, will be their ride home.