Space shuttle safely home after one of last missions

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The Independent Online

The US space shuttle Discovery landed safely at its home base in Florida today, wrapping up one of Nasa's last cargo runs and servicing missions to the International Space Station.

After 15 days in space and a journey of 6.2 million miles, the shuttle touched down at the Kennedy Space Centre's runway at 9.08am following landing delays yesterday and earlier today due to poor weather.

"Welcome home," astronaut Rick Sturckow from Mission Control in Houston radioed to Discovery commander Alan Poindexter. "Congratulations to you and the crew on an outstanding mission."

"Thanks for those words," replied Poindexter. "What a great mission. We enjoyed it and we're glad that the International Space Station is stocked up again."

Discovery and its seven-member crew returned from a 10-day stay at the space station, a $100bn project of 16 nations that has been under construction since 1998.

The final leg of Discovery's flight, the 131st in the history of the shuttle programme, was visible across much of the United States, a path Nasa usually avoids to save fuel and to skirt potentially hazardous high-altitude ice clouds.

With extra fuel and no concerns about hitting ice clouds at this time of year, Nasa opted for the northwest-to-southeast approach, a flight plan that gave the shuttle crew a little extra time to work at the space station.

If skies were clear, residents from Helena, Mont., to Montgomery, Ala., and south into Gainsville, Fla., could see a plasma trail or glowing cloud, depending on the light, as the shuttle made its supersonic glide back to Cape Canaveral.

Nasa has just three shuttle flights remaining to deliver large spare parts to the space station and complete its assembly before the shuttle fleet is retired later this year.