Shuttle Lands Late but Safely in Windy Desert

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The space shuttle Discovery made a smooth landing here at sunset Monday after high winds had postponed the touchdown nearly one day and forced a last-minute runway change.

Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration reported no problems with the Discovery or its five-member crew, who spent five days in space on a secret military mission, which reportedly involved launching a spy satellite.

The shuttle approached Edwards from the west, its fuselage gleaming in the setting sun, and touched down on a secondary runway at 4:29 p.m. NASA officials decided at 3:45 p.m. to switch to the secondary runway because strong crosswinds remained above safety limits on the main runway.

NASA spokesman Don Haley said the landing was excellent despite the runway change and two weather-related delays. "It was right in the middle of the runway," he said, "right on the money."

The shuttle was originally scheduled to make a night landing at Edwards on Sunday night, but the potential danger posed by strong crosswinds forced officials to postpone the landing.

There was another 1 1/2-hour delay Monday when officials changed the landing time from 2:52 p.m. to 4:31 p.m. so the wind could die down. As a result, the shuttle made an extra orbit in space before touchdown.

The two weather-related delays reflected the cautious approach NASA has taken since the Challenger blew up in January, 1986, officials said.

The five-day Discovery flight was the nation's 32nd shuttle mission, and the seventh since the Challenger disaster.

The crew, which ate a prepackaged Thanksgiving meal in orbit, included Air Force Col. Frederick D. Gregory, 48, the flight commander; Air Force Col. John E. Blaha, 47; Navy Capt. Manley Lanier Carter, 42; nuclear physicist Kathryn C. Thornton, 37, and F. Story Musgrave, 54, a medical doctor.

NASA imposed tight restrictions on information about the mission because of the shuttle's classified Defense Department cargo. But sources close to the project have described the Discovery payload as a satellite that was released about 10 hours after the 7:23 p.m. liftoff Wednesday. It will orbit 22,300 miles above the equator and reportedly has the capacity to monitor missile tests and military and diplomatic communications in the Soviet Union and other nations.

The next space shuttle launch also will take place at night and has been set for Dec. 18. Engineers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida have been working around the clock to prepare the shuttle Columbia for a move to the launch pad next Tuesday. During Columbia's 10-day mission, astronauts will attempt to retrieve a research satellite that was launched into orbit in 1984 and is threatening to crash to Earth within the next year.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°