Discovery prepares for re-entry

A heat shield scan has shown there is no damage to the space shuttle

Astronauts on board the Discovery space shuttle are due to attempt to land at the end of a 13-day mission to the International Space Station.
Nasa controllers woke the six crew members early on Monday to begin preparations for re-entry.

Discovery was cleared for re-entry over the weekend when inspections revealed no signs of damage to the craft.

Weather permitting, the shuttle is scheduled to touch down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1314 GMT.

Nasa officials have suggested that the apparent success of Discovery's mission has drawn a line under continued doubts over the safety of the shuttle programme.

Discovery's flight is only the second shuttle mission since the Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003 killing everyone on board and grounding the rest of the shuttle fleet.

Rain threat

Discovery's crew is preparing for re-entry a man lighter than at take-off, having left German astronaut Thomas Reiter on board the International Space Station for six months.


Mission known as STS-121
Discovery's 32nd flight
18th orbiter flight to ISS
Landing: 0914 EDT (1314 GMT), Monday 17 July
Location: Kennedy Space Center
Crew: Lindsey, Kelly, Fossum, Nowak, Wilson, Sellers

How shuttles return to Earth

The six remaining astronauts are preparing to return to Earth, often judged the most risky phase of a shuttle mission.

"Looking forward to a good day and hopefully with good weather we will be on the ground here in about eight, 10 hours," flight commander Steve Lindsey told Nasa controllers in Houston.

Some concerns remained over a bank of rain clouds in northern Florida expected to head towards the landing site.

Landing controllers need to make a decision whether to press ahead with the landing by 0747 EDT (1147 GMT), the Associated Press reports.

The crew will then fire the shuttle's engines at 0807 (1207 GMT) to begin the orbiter's descent.

If rain or poor visibility delays the landing the shuttle will have a second opportunity 90 minutes later.

If that proves impossible, Discovery will need to remain in orbit and attempt to land on Tuesday, probably at Edwards Air Force base in the California desert.

'Back on track'

Ahead of the landing, Mr Lindsey said Discovery's apparently trouble-free mission should dispel lingering doubts over the safety of the shuttle programme.

"I hope our legacy was that we closed out the return to flight test portion of the programme following the Columbia accident," he told ABC TV in the US.

"I personally believe we are back on track."

Accident investigators said the Columbia disaster had been caused by insulating foam falling from the vehicle's external fuel tank during launch, striking the orbiter's wing and damaging the heat shield needed to protect it during re-entry.

Discovery's heat shield scan was done with the same laser and camera system which was used to check for possible damage from flying debris during launch earlier in the flight.

It checked for micrometeoroid impacts that could have damaged the shuttle during the mission.

The mission has included three spacewalks and repairs vital to resuming building work on the ISS.