The space shuttle Discovery swooped back to Earth today, its graceful descent cheered lustily by more than 400,000 spectators who had convened at this remote Mojave Desert air base to witness a poignant moment in aviation history.
The wheels of the gleaming white spaceship touched down evenly at 9:37 a.m., kicking up small clouds of dust. As a taped rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" boomed from the base public address system, Discovery and its five-man crew coasted for nearly a minute down the dry lake bed runway before coming to a stop.
"Welcome back," capsule communicator Blaine Hammond told the astronauts from NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston. "A great ending to a new beginning."
"Thanks a lot," answered Frederick H. Hauck, the Discovery commander.
First Since Challenger
The landing culminated the first manned space flight by Americans since the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch 32 months ago, killing its crew of seven.
Great symbolic value had been placed on the relatively simple mission. It was projected by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration and perceived by the general public as a crucial test of this country's readiness and resolve to resume manned space flight.
Against that backdrop, the flight of Discovery produced a remarkable success. From liftoff to landing, the mission unfolded with precision, blemished only by about 10 glitches, none critical.
'A Banner Day'
"This is a banner day for all of us in NASA," James C. Fletcher, who returned from retirement to head the space agency after Challenger, told a post-landing press conference here. "We are very happy it all went so well."
Vice President George Bush, who 32 months ago had been given the grim duty of consoling the kin of Challenger's crew, on this day made a great show of greeting the Discovery astronauts. He had watched the landing with former test pilot Chuck Yeager, who three decades ago, over these same desert flats, became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.
"It was great, a great day for our country," Bush told reporters afterward.
Bush Welcomes Crew
The GOP presidential candidate welcomed the crew as they descended from the portable stairway wheeled to the Discovery's door. Hauck presented the vice president with an enormous American flag, which Bush waved once before handing it to an aide. A former pilot, Bush then was given a personal tour of the spacecraft's underbelly before he posed with all five astronauts for a series of photographs.
NASA officials said Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for President, had not asked to attend the landing, nor was he invited.
The landing crowd was one of the largest ever to assemble for a shuttle landing. The Air Force estimated the crowd at 410,000. Spectators in recreational vehicles rolled into the desert throughout the weekend, establishing an overnight metropolis in the sprawling dirt parking lot set aside for them.
'It Was a Thrill'
They did not leave disappointed.
"It was a thrill," said 29-year-old Randy Hawkes, who brought his three toddlers to watch the landing. "It felt good to know we are back in space."
After dropping over the California coast near Santa Barbara, Discovery sped over the Tehachapi Mountains, announcing its arrival with two tremendous sonic booms.
About a minute later, the spaceship could be seen as a small dot against a sky marked only with a scattering of wispy clouds. It made a sweeping turn over the base and then, at a sharp angle, glided down to the Rogers Lake Bed. Shouts and applause accompanied the touchdown.
NASA officials described the landing as "hot." Discovery was traveling at more than 200 m.p.h. when it touched down, faster than most shuttle landings.
A hasty post-flight inspection revealed only a few of the crucial heat tiles on the shuttle's underbelly had been damaged in the re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.