NASA Plans to Land Shuttle Tuesday
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Low clouds kept shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven from making their much-anticipated return to Earth, and NASA (search) vowed to bring the spacecraft down Tuesday in Florida, California or possibly even New Mexico.
"We will attempt to land somewhere," flight director LeRoy Cain said after Monday morning's two unsuccessful landing opportunities.
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The delay disappointed the astronauts' families, who were waiting at Kennedy Space Center (search) for their loved ones' return after nearly two stressful weeks in orbit.
Discovery's astronauts woke up Monday evening to The Beatles "Good Day Sunshine" and were ready to get back home.
"It's a day for sunshine and it's a day for feet on the ground," Mission Control (search) radioed the astronauts.
"We sure hope we get our feet on the ground today," astronaut Wendy Lawrence responded.
It is the first shuttle flight since Columbia's catastrophic re-entry in 2003, and the mission experienced a series of problems that required emergency spacewalk repairs and constant engineering analysis.
More cloudy weather was expected at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday with a chance of rain, but it remained NASA's first choice for an early morning touchdown. Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert was the next choice, followed by the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the absolute last resort.
Good conditions were expected at Edwards, while rain was in the forecast for White Sands.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (search) insisted "there's no agony" associated with the one-day delay in getting Discovery home. Like other space agency officials, he was waiting for "wheels stop" on the runway before even thinking about celebrating.
Come Tuesday, "We're going to land one way or another, one place or another, and all we're talking about is where," Griffin said.
"It's better to be on the safe side," astronaut John Herrington observed from the runway. In fact, a thick, dark layer of clouds hovered overhead at the designated touchdown time.
Astronaut Scott Parazynski said from the landing strip that he is certain the crew members were disappointed at having to put off their family reunions. But on the other hand, "It's another day to look out the window and savor a day in space."
Indeed, some rock 'n' roll and country music drifted down over Discovery's airwaves as the astronauts settled into their extra day in space.
"Thank you for a great day off and sure looking forward to being back on solid ground," radioed astronaut Stephen Robinson, a onetime DJ.
NASA prefers landing shuttles at the same place where it launches them, to avoid the several days and estimated $1 million in ferrying the spacecraft atop a modified jumbo jet back from the West Coast.
Of the previous 111 shuttle landings, space shuttles returned 61 times to Kennedy, 49 times to Edwards and once — way back in 1982 — to White Sands. Columbia ended up coming down in a sandstorm on that third shuttle flight and, for decades, workers were still finding sand in the ship's crevices.
Discovery had enough power and supplies to stay in orbit until Wednesday, but NASA was holding out that option only if a technical problem arose that needed time to be resolved.
During the mission, the biggest setback was the loss of a 1-pound chunk of foam insulation from the fuel tank during the July 26 launch, the same problem that ended up destroying Columbia. NASA suspended future shuttle flights just one day after Discovery took off.
Two of Discovery's crew members performed three spacewalks, the first to test tools and techniques for fixing damaged heat shields, the second to replace a broken station gyroscope, and the third to remove a couple dangling strips of filler material from Discovery's belly that NASA feared could lead to a Columbia-type disaster.