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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shuttle Returns to Worries Over Station




CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Space shuttle Discovery and its astronauts are back from the International Space Station after accomplishing everything they set out to do.


All the headaches are now back on Earth.


Hanging over the successful supply mission is uncertainty about both the status of the next shuttle flight and scheduled follow-up trips to the new space station.


Those fears were momentarily set aside as Discovery emerged like a ghost ship from the predawn Sunday sky and touched down on Kennedy Space Center's floodlighted runway.


It was only the 11th time that a space shuttle landed in darkness.


"Welcome home, Discovery, from the first docking mission to the International Space Station," radioed Mission Control.


The seven astronauts skipped the traditional shuttle walkaround and picture taking, and instead asked to be driven straight to crew quarters. They left managers waiting on the landing strip, fueling speculation that one or more of the crew might be nauseous, as sometimes happens to returning astronauts.


NASA insisted the astronauts were fine and merely eager to be reunited with their families.


Commander Kent Rominger told reporters Monday no one was sick, although it took "a while to get our Earth legs back." Because everything seemed to take longer than usual at touchdown, and because he and his crewmates had plans for later in the day, they decided "to head on back and get on with our day off."


"It is so nice at wheels stop for at least a day just to, ahhhhhh, relax and go see family and friends ... basically get away from it all for a day," Rominger said.


He added: "We had a fantastic adventure.''


During their 10 days in orbit, the astronauts unloaded 2 tons of supplies at the space station for future inhabitants, replaced bad electronic boxes and installed mufflers over noisy fans.


On their way home, they dropped off a glittering, mirrored satellite called Starshine that schoolchildren will track until it falls from orbit at the beginning of next year.


Astronauts aren't due back at the space station until December, when they're supposed to haul up more supplies aboard Atlantis. But that mission cannot take place - and neither can any other missions to the 6-month-old space station - until the Russians launch a crucial service module that will double as crew quarters.


The component is scheduled to fly in November, 1 1/2 years behind schedule, provided all the testing between now and then goes well. The Russian Space Agency's money problems and delays have long bothered NASA.


"I always hope for the best, plan for the worst," NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said following Discovery's return.


NASA's more immediate concern involves Columbia and the $1.5 billion observatory Chandra, also running a year late because of a multitude of problems.


The upper-stage motor on Chandra is similar to one that malfunctioned aboard a military satellite in April, leaving the craft in a useless orbit. An Air Force investigation into the failure continues.


For now, NASA is proceeding toward a July 22 launch of Columbia, the only shuttle big enough to hold the 13.5-meter telescope. Goldin stressed, however, that he won't give the final go-ahead until "the NASA team walks into my office and says they understand exactly what went wrong, they understand how it was fixed."