Discovery lands safely after one final diversion

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The Independent Online

After their 14-day test of space shuttle safety, Discovery swooped through the darkness of the Mojave Desert and landed on the Edwards runway at 1211 GMT, well before the California sunrise.

The detour to California came after thunderstorms in Cape Canaveral, Florida, prevented the shuttle from returning to its home base.

"How do you feel about a beautiful clear night with a breeze down the runway in the high desert of California?" Mission Control radioed after giving up on Florida.

"We are ready for whatever we need to do," replied commander Eileen Collins.

The dangerous re-entry had not been attempted since the Columbia shuttle disintegrated just minutes away from landing, killing all seven astronauts on board in 2003.

Cheers went up as Discovery suddenly appeared in view at around 1pm today, a small white speck against the darkness. It came in to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California at around 220mph right on time at 1.11pm UK time.

"We're happy to be back in, we congratulate the whole team for a job well done," pilot Eileen Collins told mission control.

The weather posed a problem right up to the re-entry with two landing opportunities at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida cancelled two hours earlier due to storms. Instead, the shuttle was switched to the clear skies of California. Touchdown was also delayed twice yesterday because of low cloud.

Tension had been high since take-off, when a piece of insulating foam broke off the external fuel tank. Then astronaut Stephen Robinson made the first-ever orbital repair, gently pulling two strips of thermal tile "grout" away from the shuttle's heat shield.

The effort was a hailed a success, but that did not stop Nasa grounding its fleet until the problem is resolved.