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Space shuttle lands safely

HOUSTON, Sept 12 – NASA’s space shuttle Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base in Californiaon Friday, ending a 13 day-mission to the International Space Station.

The shuttle made the steep descent — at an angle seven times more acute than a commercial jet — through thin cloud to runway 22 at the desert base with shuttle commander CJ Sturckow and pilot Kevin Ford at the controls.

"Welcome home, Discovery," shuttle communicator Eric Boe radioed from Mission Control. "Congratulations on an extremely successful mission."

As the shuttle carrying the seven-member crew touched down smoothly at 5:53 pm local time (0053 GMT), a parachute launched from its rear to help the craft slow down.

The successful landing came after the Discovery was twice today and twice yesterday unable to land at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida due to poor weather conditions.

The crew had hoped to land in Florida, where family members had gathered to greet them, but settled in the end for a touchdown in California where skies were sunny.

Discovery spent 13 days in space on a mission designed to equip the International Space Station (ISS) with more than 18,000 pounds of supplies, including life support gear and scientific equipment.

"We’re pretty fat on supplies now, thanks to you," ISS resident Mike Barratt told the shuttle astronauts as they departed earlier this week. "We’re in better shape to carry out our work."

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Among those aboard the Discovery was American astronaut Tim Kopra, who spent 58 days aboard the ISS.

"This experience has completely exceeded anything I thought it would be like, just in sights and sounds, the experiences," said Kopra. "It’s been absolutely phenomenal."

He was replaced on the station by Discovery astronaut Nicole Stott. She joins five Russian, European and Canadian astronauts and will remain at the outpost until late November.

Stott, who is flying in space for the first time, has trained to capture Japan’s new HTV cargo capsule with the station’s robot arm as the supply ship moves within 30 feet of the space station.

The HTV was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan on Thursday and is expected to reach the ISS on September 17 with a cargo of food, science experiments and other hardware.

The HTV’s successful capture could be vital to the space station’s future. NASA is scheduled to retire its space shuttle program by 2011, and plans to pay a pair of American commercial rocket companies to haul supplies to the ISS. Both will rely on the same robot arm berthing technique that Japan’s HTV will initiate.

Discovery’s crew conducted three spacewalks during their mission, upgrading an external cooling system and collecting samples of materials that could be used to fabricate future spacecraft, including a replacement for the shuttle. The samples were left outside the station a year ago to determine how they would react to the space vacuum, the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and a reactive form of oxygen in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Discovery’s flight marked Sturckow’s fourth voyage to the station, the most by any astronaut.

"It’s really awesome to see all the work that has been achieved up here," Sturckow told an interviewer during the mission.

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"It’s something all of the international partners can be very proud of their contributions."

Also returning the Earth with the Discovery was a Buzz Lightyear figurine that launched to the space station last year as part of NASA educational program.

A half-dozen shuttle missions remain for NASA, with each of the flights intended to gradually bring the assembly of the 15-nation space station to an end. NASA plans to retire the shuttle program by 2011.

Earlier this week, a White House advisory committee urged the Obama administration to extend activities aboard the space station until 2020, even in the shuttle’s absence.

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