The space shuttle Columbia's astronauts' joy to be home was loud and clear Saturday when the orbiter landed safely, ending a 16-day mission fraught with anxiety and disappointment.
"Yeah!" "All right!" they shouted after Columbia rolled to a stop.
"We copy your elation," Mission Control said. "Welcome back."
The seven crew members had to leave behind a satellite-on-a-cord and had to land with one less data-relay channel than desired.
"It is as if I had left some part of myself there in space," Italian astronaut Maurizio Cheli said of his country's tethered satellite. "It's a very disappointing feeling, this for sure."
NASA's oldest shuttle, carrying one of the most seasoned crews ever, glided through high, wispy clouds before touching down on the concrete runway at Kennedy Space Center just before 6 a.m. PST.
Columbia was supposed to land Friday, but thick clouds scuttled those plans. Clouds rolled back in early Saturday, forcing Mission Control to pass up the first landing opportunity, but the sky later cleared.
Complicating NASA's landing plans was the surprise failure last week of one of four computer circuits that control the wing flaps, rudder and brakes.
Even though only one of four identical channels is needed for a safe landing, National Aeronautics and Space Administration flight rules require that a mission end as soon as possible after such a failure. Shuttle managers bent the rules, deciding against a Friday landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in hopes that the Florida weather would improve.
Touchdown turned out to be flawless, NASA flight director Rich Jackson said. It ended a journey that fell far short of its goal--unreeling a satellite on 12 miles of cable, generating electricity with the system for two days and then bringing it all back.
The tether broke without warning less than five hours into the $400-million-plus experiment, and the satellite drifted off.
Columbia also had other problems.
During the Feb. 22 launch, a gauge and caution light indicated one of the three main engines was not working properly. It turned out to be a false alarm.
And hot gas singed O-rings in the booster rockets at liftoff. These two O-rings are intended to keep adhesive away from the critical O-ring seals during assembly. None of the protective O-ring seals was damaged, and the crew was never in danger, officials said.