The shuttle Discovery appears to be in good shape after its ground-shaking launch and fiery re-entry, officials say, setting the stage for launch of the shuttle Atlantis next month on a military mission.
Discovery and its five-man crew glided to a picture-perfect Mojave Desert touchdown Wednesday to close out a four-day mission highlighted by the successful deployment of the European-built Ulysses probe on a $750 million voyage to study the uncharted poles of the sun.NASA officials said the 36th shuttle mission was near perfect, a morale-boosting success after a long summer of setbacks, repeated delays and constant criticism.
"I'm elated. It's been a long, hot summer . . ., and it's nice to be back flying again," shuttle program director Robert Crippen said. "It is a high day for us."
He said Discovery appeared to have come through the 1.7 million-mile mission in excellent shape with only a handful of minor "dings" to its fragile heat-shield tile system. A more thorough assessment was expected Thursday.
Discovery's flight was NASA's first in more than five months because of elusive hydrogen fuel leaks that grounded the shuttles Columbia and Atlantis in May, July and September. Atlantis has since been repaired, but Columbia remains grounded.
If all goes well, Atlantis will be hauled to the launch pad at at 10 p.m. MDT Thursday for work to ready the ship for blastoff around Nov. 7 on a secret military mission.