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Back on track

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Discovery entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 7:06 a.m. EST. Traveling at 17,000 mph, the shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert at 8:11 a.m. The successful landing marked the end of a journey that lasted nearly 14 days and 5.8 million miles.
Shuttle commander Colonel Eileen Collins called the flight a “fantastic mission,” noting “we brought Discovery back in great shape.”
48-year-old Collins made history a few years ago when she was appointed first woman commander of a shuttle.
The upstate New Yorker, who traces her roots back to Co. Cork, has a daughter named Bridget and a son named Luke.
The shuttle should have landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but unpredictable weather conditions delayed re-entry for two days and eventually led the ground crew to designate a new landing spot.
“We are ready for whatever we need to do,” Collins replied bravely as mission control informed her of the change of plan.
Numerous problems with the shuttle led to fears of a repeat of the disastrous Columbia mission in February 2003, when the shuttle exploded upon reentry to the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members inside.
Discovery’s launch was marred with repeated delays, one of which occurred just two and a half hours before lift off, when a problem with a fuel level sensor forced mission controllers to postpone the original July 13 launch.
When it finally did take off, cameras showed a small piece of debris falling from the shuttle’s belly, prompting fears that it was unsafe for space travel.
In orbit, Discovery’s crew performed three spacewalks in order to replace a faulty steering gyroscope and revive another on the space station.
The crew also performed a dangerous repair that involved space walking onto the shuttle’s belly to remove bits of cloth filler protruding from the spacecraft’s heat-shield tiles, which NASA managers feared could cause dangerous overheating on re-entry.
In preparation for the worst, NASA commanded Collins to adjust the shuttle’s orbit for Discovery’s return so that it would not fly over the most heavily populated areas of Los Angeles in the event of another accident.
However, all fears were relayed as the shuttle touched down safely.
“Discovery is home,” announced James Hartsfield, a spokesperson for NASA as the shuttle touched down.
“We’re happy to be back,” Colonel Collins told the New York Times soon afterwards.
“We congratulate the whole team on a job well done.”
“I feel, I feel fantastic,” the program manager, Bill Parsons, at a press conference in Florida, after the shuttle had landed.
“This is a wildly successful mission in so many ways.”
Shortly after the landing, the crew, comprising Collins, Jim Kelly, Steve Robinson, Soichi Noguchi, Andy Thomas, Wendy Lawrence and Charlie Camarda, did a traditional walkaround inspection of the shuttle.
“It looks fantastic,” Collins said.
“This is a wonderful moment for all of us to experience.”
Collins grew up with a yearning to take up flight.
“My family never had the money to pay for flying lessons or…even a ride in an airplane,” she said in a NASA interview. “My desire to fly just continued to build.”
Although she described herself as shy and timid growing up, Collins pursued flight training and dismissed the premise that flying “was a guy thing.”
She began military pilot training for the Air Force in 1978, the same year that NASA first opened the Shuttle program to women.
The elite first class of women pilots inspired Collins to dream bigger.
NASA selected Collins to join America’s Astronaut Corps in 1990, and made her an official astronaut the following year.
She has logged more than 6,280 hours in 30 different types of aircraft. More than 537 of those hours were logged in space.
Now a veteran of four space flights, Collins said prior to the Discovery launch: “I have a fantastic crew. The seven Shuttle crewmembers have been so professional in the work that we have done up to this point.”
NASA aims to hold the next shuttle launch on Sept. 22. The Discovery shuttle will be retired in 2010.

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