Columbia's astronauts glided to a smooth landing tonight at the Kennedy Space Center, wrapping up their five-day mission to deploy the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
Commander Eileen Collins flew Columbia to a textbook touchdown at 10:20 p.m. Central time on Runway 3-3 at the Cape's Shuttle's Landing Facility, swooping out of darkness to complete a mission spanning almost 1.8 million miles. Pilot Jeff Ashby, Flight Engineer Steve Hawley and Mission Specialist Cady Coleman joined Collins on the flight deck for entry and landing. Mission Specialist Michel Tognini of the French Space Agency was seated alone down in the middeck. It was the 19th consecutive Shuttle landing at the Florida spaceport and the 12th night landing in Shuttle program history.
A few minutes earlier, Columbia provided a light show for residents in Houston as it sped overhead about 15 minutes before landing, visible in the nighttime skies as an orange streak headed for Florida. Columbia was at an altitude of about 200,000 feet at the time, travelling about 15 times the speed of sound.
Left behind in orbit is the Chandra Observatory, which was released from Columbia's cargo bay last Friday morning. Telescope controllers at the Chandra Operations Control Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts say the Observatory is in excellent shape in the first week of its checkout for scientific operations.
The astronauts will be reunited with their families overnight Wednesday before holding a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center to discuss their flight. That news conference is scheduled at about 4:30 a.m. Central time and will be broadcast on NASA Television just prior to the astronauts' departure from KSC.
The crew plans to return to Ellington Field near the Johnson Space Center Wednesday morning at about 10:15 a.m. Central time, where the five astronauts are expected to be greeted by Vice-President Gore, JSC Director George W. S. Abbey and center employees. The crew return, which will occur at Hangar 276 at Ellington, will be broadcast live on NASA TV. It is open to the public.
Further updates on crew return can be obtained by calling the JSC newsroom Wednesday morning after 8 a.m. Central time.
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