At 8:12 this morning, the Shuttle Discovery touched down on the alternate landing site in California, ending one of the most publicly followed space missions since the historic Apollo 13 mission to the moon.
All around the world, countries that financially back the International Space Station breathed a sigh of relief as Shuttle Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base after a 14 day mission. Yesterday's scheduled landing at KSC/Florida, and again at KSC in today's pre-dawn hours, were cancelled due to weather related concerns.
The NASA Return To Fight mission that started with a perfect launch, but then went through several days of high tension scrutiny as NASA and the shuttle crew assessed and repaired minor damage to the spacecraft, has returned safely to Earth with a picture perfect landing.
Despite speculation that NASA's shuttle fleet would experience "grounding" due to continuing problems with foam breaking off the shuttle's fuel tank, it seems unlikely that this will delay the second test flight of the re-designed shuttle, once scheduled for September 22-26, but possibly pushed back to November due to the time it will take to return Discovery (now designated the back-up/rescue shuttle) to Kennedy Space Center for processing.
The incidents of "foam shedding" from the shuttle fuel tank was reduced from over 110 per launch (average), to under 25 for this latest launch. The reduction was described by NASA Officials as "a significant improvement". The single most dangerous incident, the PAL ramp foam, was found to have been damaged and then repaired weeks before launch, leaving it potentially weaker than a non-damaged foam application. This chunk of foam did not impact the shuttle, but an impact could have caused significant damage requiring in-orbit repairs.
This "damage and repair" policy regarding fuel tank foam (in areas that could impact the shuttle) is something that NASA may flag as unacceptable for future launches. Even so, the PAL ramp foam may undergo modification before the September launch.
Far from being discouraged by the problems encountered on the mission, most employees at NASA are expressing great satisfaction and encouragement by the overall success of this mission.
Keith Cowing, a former Nasa scientist who now runs the NasaWatch.com website, said officials were confident and that "Nasa hopes to use the boost of a safely completed mission to announce it had solved the problem of falling debris from the external tanks, and that the next shuttle flight - scheduled for September - could go ahead."
All things considered, this was a highly successful Return To Flight. With an expanded knowledge of how the safety modifications performed in actual launch conditions, a greater focus on launch damage identification prior to reentry , and the tools and experience to repair the shuttle while in orbit, NASA is ready to make the September launch of Shuttle Atlantis (STS-121) the safest mission yet.