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Touchdown! Shuttle has landed

Big sighs of relief all round

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The Space Shuttle Discovery has touched down safe and sound - much to the relief of NASA engineers and space fans everywhere. Mission control congratulated commander Eileen Collins and her crew on the successful test flight, and welcomed them home.

Anything orbiting the Earth de-orbits by slowing down, and in the backwards and upside-down world of orbital mechanics, you slow down by firing your engines. At just after midday British Summer Time, Shuttle commander Eileen Collins fired Discovery’s engines for 2 minutes and 42 seconds, slowing the ship enough that it could begin an hour-long free fall back to Earth.

Bad weather in Florida meant that the Space Shuttle Discovery was diverted to land in California's Edwards Air Base instead of at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Cape Canaveral. Low cloud over KSC had already delayed the landing by 24 hours.

Landing in California is not a cheap option. Getting the shuttle back to Cape Canaveral will cost NASA around a million dollars extra, and will incur an extra week of processing time, the FT reports. Eventually the Shuttle will be shipped across the country on a specially modified 747.

The safe return of Shuttle will undoubtedly be a boost for NASA, but the future of the space programme remains uncertain. The flight of discovery was designed to test NASA's fixes of the problems that led to the loss of Columbia back in 2003. On that flight, large chunks of foam fell off the craft during take off, damaging one of the wings, and leading to the Shuttle breaking up on re-entry with the loss of all crew on board.

When insulating foam once again fell from the craft during Discovery's take off, the Shuttle effectively failed that test. The next Shuttle flight is still slated to take place on 22 September, but NASA has officially grounded all future flights until problems with the foam that insulates the fuel tank are fixed. ®

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