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Discovery returns from space safely

SPACE Shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday after a construction mission that left the international space station with all its solar wings and extra electrical power.

Mission Control delayed Discovery's homecoming by about 90 minutes, or one orbit, because of windy, cloudy weather.

But the wind shifted and conditions improved enough for the second and final landing opportunity of the day.

The installation and unfurling of the space station's last pair of solar wings, costing US$300 million, brought the orbiting outpost up to full power, a vital part of NASA's plan to double the space station population and boost the amount of science research in a few months.

Pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli said he missed being up there. "This whole living in one-G thing is for the birds," said Antonelli, referring to Earth's gravity. "The zero-G, I think, is the way to go. It's a blast."

Discovery came back in good shape, after traveling more than 5 million miles and circling Earth 202 times. Even the area of the belly where a heat shield test was conducted during re-entry looked to be fairly clean, officials said.

The space agency designed a new tile as a potential improvement for space shuttles - a matter of keen interest ever since Columbia was destroyed during re-entry in 2003 - and the new rocketships that will replace them.

Discovery brought back former space station resident Sandra Magnus, who logged 134 days in orbit. Her replacement, a Japanese astronaut, left aboard Discovery on March 15.

The shuttle also ferried back 4 liters of recycled water that had been the astronauts' own urine and sweat. The water was produced after Discovery delivered a new urine processor that fixed the recycling machine.

If it tests okay, the three space station residents will be given the all-clear to start drinking the recycled water.

The space station got more guests on Saturday with the arrival of a Russian Soyuz capsule just three days after Discovery's departure.

Two of the newcomers, an American and a Russian, will swap places with commander Mike Fincke and cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov, who have been in orbit for six months.

NASA's next mission by space shuttle Atlantis, a long-delayed repair effort at the Hubble Space Telescope, is scheduled for May. Atlantis will be moved to its launching pad tomorrow.


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