Discovery returns to Florida base

The US space shuttle Discovery has returned to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on board a specially modified Boeing 747 jet.

    The cost of the flight is at least $1 million

    Television news footage showed the Boeing 747, with the shuttle on top, landing in Florida on a runway at the sprawling National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility,

    more than a week after being diverted to the Mojave Desert for the first landing shuttle since the Columbia tragedy.

    "This is a welcome sight for employees," a Nasa spokesman said on Sunday. "Discovery is back at Kennedy Space Centre".

    Space shuttle Discovery rode piggyback atop the jet headed for Florida, but its arrival was delayed by bad weather, Nasa said. 

    Bad weather delay 

    The modified Boeing 747 carrying Discovery took off on Friday morning and arrived in Oklahoma about three hours later -
    the first leg of a 3591-km trip to the shuttle's home at Cape Canaveral.

    All shuttles have been grounded
    until next year

    The two aircraft stopped overnight at a military base in Louisiana and were scheduled to fly on to Florida on Saturday.

    But weather conditions along the route forced Nasa to put off the final flight until Sunday.

    "Potential weather issues early this afternoon at Kennedy would violate the vehicle's stringent flight weather criteria," Nasa had said.

    The expected cost of the trip was at least $1 million.

    Uncertain future

    Discovery and its seven-member crew touched down on 9 August at Nasa's backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base after a 14-day mission to the international space station.

    Nasa diverted the landing to California after low clouds and lightning prevented the shuttle from returning to Florida during four earlier opportunities.

    After landing, Discovery underwent maintenance inside a steel structure on the base two hours north of Los Angeles. Crews purged the shuttle of hazardous substances, removed fuel from the on-board tanks and attached a 4500-kg aluminium tail cone to eliminate drag during flight.

    Discovery's homecoming has been tempered by uncertainties about the shuttle programme's future.

    The same foam problems that doomed Columbia 2 1/2 years ago showed up during Discovery's liftoff, prompting Nasa to ground all shuttle flights until 2006 so engineers could find a solution.

    A chunk of foam insulation broke off Discovery's redesigned external fuel tank during liftoff on 26 July, but unlike in Columbia's case, the foam missed Discovery.

    Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts on board.

    Nasa ground crews who inspected Discovery after its return from orbit found little damage to its exterior.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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