Sweeping down over a near-record crowd of 450,000 jubilant spectators, the space shuttle Discovery glided in to a triumphant landing here Saturday morning, ending a five-day, $375-million mission that National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials termed nearly perfect.
After 79 orbits during which the astronauts launched a $100-million satellite, tested a heat radiator for the proposed space station and photographed large sections of the Earth’s surface in an attempt to monitor environmental damage, Cmdr. Michael Coats and pilot John Blaha eased the 195,000-pound Discovery down precisely on the center of the long concrete runway here at 6:36 a.m.
Celebrating the third successful shuttle mission since the January, 1986, explosion that destroyed the Challenger, Rear Adm. Richard Truly, a veteran astronaut and head of the shuttle program, exulted: “We’re back.”
Many of the crowd seemed to share his view. “It was wonderful. It gave me goose bumps and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” said Jackie Gillespie of Lake Forest. “The emotional quiet before it landed was really amazing, with everybody holding their breath,” added Jim Simpson of Thousand Oaks. “It was uplifting.”
Coats, 43, Blaha, 46, and crew members James Bagian, 37, Robert Springer, 46, and James Buchli, 43, made a brief, emotional appearance before boarding a jet for Houston nearly five hours after touchdown.
“Thank God for America,” Blaha said. “We have a free country. We have a great educational system that produces engineering expertise that allows us to build something like this space shuttle. So we’re blessed. God bless you and God bless America.”
After a brief inspection of the Discovery, Truly said that the orbiter and its heat-shielding tiles came through virtually unscathed, a sharp contrast to the Atlantis mission in January in which the tiles were heavily pitted, most likely as a result of insulation that broke free from the nose of one booster rocket during separation.
Modifications made to Discovery to prevent insulation from breaking loose were apparently successful, Truly said. “The vehicle is as clean as any orbiter that I personally have ever seen,” he said. “There is almost no visible tile damage.”
Seven Missions Planned
The most important goal of this mission, the first of seven scheduled for 1989, was the launch of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite to complete a globe-girdling communications network that allows the space agency to keep in touch with the shuttle during 85% of its orbit.
One TDRS was launched before the Challenger disaster and the second on the first post-Challenger flight. Completion of the network will allow the agency to close five ground tracking stations for an annual savings of $27 million.
The TDRS system also allowed ground controllers to maintain contact with Discovery during its re-entry blackout period when ionized gases prevent normal communications with the ground--the first time such contact has been achieved.
With the tracking system complete, Truly said, “Now the fun begins,” referring to a series of science-oriented missions NASA has planned. In April, the orbiter Atlantis will launch the $530-million Magellan probe to Venus, which will use radar to map 80% of the planet’s surface. Other planned scientific missions include the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Ulysses mission to orbit the sun and the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gamma Ray Observatory.
NASA will also launch Department of Defense payloads in two classified shuttle missions this summer.
Experiment With Rats
After the landing, four crippled rats who were aboard Discovery, as well as four others in a control group kept on the ground, were killed with injections of sodium pentobarbital. A non-weight-bearing bone in one hind leg of each rat was severed before launch in the experiment to learn how fast bones heal in the weightlessness of space compared to Earth.
The estimated 450,000 people who viewed the landing was second in size only to the 500,000 who viewed the July 4, 1982, landing of Columbia, the fourth shuttle mission, which was also attended by then-President Ronald Reagan. NASA officials had predicted only 200,000 would attend this weekend, about the same number who had viewed the first post-Challenger landing last October. Many of the visitors said they would not have been able to attend had the landing not been on a Saturday.