Space shuttle Discovery and its seven astronauts safely returned to Earth on after some last-minute suspense over which landing site to use, closing out a year in which NASA finally got construction of the international space station back on track.
Its arrival announced by its signature twin sonic booms, the spaceship touched down on a floodlit runway in the early evening darkness Friday after a smooth, 13-day flight during which the astronauts rewired the space station and delivered US astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams to the orbiting outpost for a six-month stay.
"It's a thrill to have you in Florida," Mission Control said.
After the shuttle rolled to a stop, ending its 8.5 million-kilometer journey, Discovery commander Mark Polansky said: "You have seven thrilled people right here. ... I think it's going to be a great holiday."
Less than two hours after touching down, Polansky and four other crew members - pilot William Oefelein, and mission specialists Robert Curbeam, Joan Higginbotham and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang of the European Space Agency - walked around the shuttle and inspected it under a light drizzle and blustery wind.
Missing from the walk-around inspection were US astronaut Nicholas Patrick and German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency, who came back from a six-month stay at the space station and felt the pull of gravity Friday for the first time since July.
"Nick was feeling slightly, just a bit woozy as well," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. "He's doing just fine."
It was not until about an hour before the landing that NASA decided where to bring the shuttle home. There were showers over Florida, which forced NASA to bypass the first opportunity to land, and crosswinds at the usual back-up landing site, Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert.
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