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Houston to Celebrate Astronauts' Return

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HOUSTON (AP) -- Discovery's astronauts spent private time with their families in Houston on Wednesday after safely landing their spacecraft in the California desert.

Houston to Celebrate Astronauts' Return
Photo: (AP Photo)

The celebrations that erupted after Tuesday's pre-dawn landing were scheduled to continue publicly Wednesday in Houston with an afternoon homecoming celebration for the seven space travelers.

The weary astronauts returned late Tuesday to Houston, where they were reunited with their families and then got a good night's rest, NASA officials said.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay planned to help welcome Discovery's crew home to the city where Mission Control is located.

But even after what mission controllers called the "truly spectacular test flight," it was still uncertain if and when another space shuttle would return to orbit. The tense, two-week mission exposed how vulnerable the shuttle fleet remains.

Shortly after Discovery lifted off July 26, a nearly 1-pound chunk of foam insulation fell from the fuel tank -- the very thing that was supposed to have been fixed after dooming Columbia 2 1/2 years ago. The foam missed Discovery, but NASA grounded all shuttle flights until engineers fix the problem.

"We're going to try as hard as we can to get back in space this year," Griffin said at a news conference in Florida, where Discovery was originally set to land. "But we're not going to go until we're ready to go."

Shuttle managers freely acknowledged the foam shedding, while stressing that the inspection, photography and other shuttle data-gathering systems put in place for this flight worked well.

"I hope this shows people that we're coming back," NASA spaceflight chief Bill Readdy said from Cape Canaveral, Fla. "We've got some more work to do. We know what we need to do and we'll do it."

Houston to Celebrate Astronauts' Return
Photo: (AP Photo)

The Columbia disaster weighed heavily on everyone's minds as the shuttle descended to Earth. The 17,000-mph plunge from orbit took Discovery through the same kind of intense heating that exposed the mortal wound in Columbia's wing and caused the shuttle to disintegrate in 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Dr. Jon Clark, a NASA neurologist and husband of Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark, said he quietly remembered his wife and closely compared the two missions as Discovery came to Earth.

"I thought, 'This is when the tire light went on,"' Clark said from Kennedy Space Center, referring to an initial sensor reading that Columbia was breaking up. "I was paralleling the two missions."

After Discovery landed, shuttle Commander Eileen Collins said the U.S. should continue launching shuttles until the scheduled completion of the international space station in 2010 -- a sentiment echoed by Griffin.

"Some people say we should stop flying the shuttle because we had an accident -- frankly we've had two accidents -- but we are people who believe in this mission and we are going to continue it," Collins said.

President Bush congratulated the Discovery team, calling the flight "a great achievement."

Discovery will be taken back to Florida by riding piggyback atop a modified Boeing 747. The cross-country trip next week is expected to cost the space agency about $1 million.

Discovery's crew accomplished its main objectives to resupply the international space station and fix broken equipment. The first shuttle to visit the space station since 2002, Discovery spent nine days docked to the orbiting lab.

Astronauts performed two planned spacewalks to test new repair techniques and replace a failed gyroscope which helped control the station's orientation.

In a third unprecedented spacewalk, astronaut Stephen Robinson went beneath Discovery's belly to pull out two protruding thermal tile fillers that engineers feared could cause overheating during re-entry. NASA considered a fourth spacewalk to repair a torn thermal blanket near the cockpit window, but decided against it, saying that it posed little danger.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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