NASA workers burst into applause and cheered as Discovery’s wheels touched concrete. The homecoming of mission STS114 came 13 days, 21 hours and 33 minutes after its launch from Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, Florida, an event that was marred by a near-fatal incident when a 1lb chunk of cladding rattled loose from the fuel tank, almost striking the spacecraft.
For the first time in the shuttle’s 24-year history, Nasa was able to inspect every inch of the vehicle’s exterior in orbit, ensuring that it was fit to fly home through the blowtorch heat of re-entry. In addition the crew carried out important repairs to the International Space Station, whose four gyroscopes — which help to manoeuvre it in orbit — are now all working together for the first time in three years.
Rimmed by a halo of fire as it scorched out of space and into Earth’s atmosphere, Discovery began its descent over the Pacific Ocean after 219 orbits of the planet. Hopes of landing at its home port in Florida were crushed when thunderstorms crept on to the radar, forcing mission controllers to divert it to Edwards Air Force Base in California. It began the hour-long, computer-controlled plunge as a spacecraft and ended it as an aircraft, crossing the 75-mile high barrier between Earth and space at 25 times the speed of sound.