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Discovery touches down in Florida

NASA prepping for next mission

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Shuttle has landed at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, after nearly a fortnight in space, and with one crew member less than when it took off.

The European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Reiter was not jettisoned unceremoniously when his team (Germany) exited the World Cup, but is now staying aboard the International Space Station (ISS). He will be the first space station inhabitant from outside either Russia or the US.

He'll stay there for the next six months, working on the Astrolab mission, a series of experiments in human psychology and physiology. He will also conduct investigations into microbiology, plasma physics and radiation dosimetry.

NASA has hailed the mission as a roaring success. "The mission, STS-121, succeeded in testing shuttle safety improvements, repairing a rail car on the International Space Station and producing never-before-seen, high-resolution images of the shuttle during and after its July 4th launch," it says in a press statement announcing the safe return of the crew.

The space agency said its engineers were pleased with the Shuttle's performance following its big aerodynamic changes.

The protuberance air load ramps, a section of the external fuel tank, were removed after Discovery's previous mission. During the launch last year, foam fell from this area, prompting huge concern and a long-running debate about the safety of launching any shuttle missions.

However, with the crew home safe, and all the major objectives of the mission achieved, preparations are already being made for the next flight. The Shuttle Atlantis is due to launch in late August or early September, when it will deliver more parts to the ISS. It will be Atlantis' first mission since October 2002. ®

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