Space shuttle Discovery and its seven astronauts safely returned to Earth on Friday after some last-minute suspense over which landing site to use, closing out a year in which NASA finally got construction of the international space station back on track.
Its arrival was announced by its signature twin sonic booms. The spaceship touched down on a floodlit runway in the early evening darkness on Friday after a smooth, 13-day flight during which the astronauts rewired the space station and delivered US astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams to the orbiting outpost for a six-month stay.
"It's a thrill to have you in Florida," Mission Control said.
After the shuttle rolled to a stop, ending its 8.5 million-kilometer journey, Discovery commander Mark Polansky said: "You have seven thrilled people right here ... I think it's going to be a great holiday."
Less than two hours after touching down, Polansky and four other crew members -- pilot William Oefelein, and mission specialists Robert Curbeam, Joan Higginbotham and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang of the European Space Agency -- walked around the shuttle and inspected it under a light drizzle and blustery wind.
Missing from the walk-around inspection were US astronaut Nicholas Patrick and German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency, who came back from a six-month stay at the space station and felt the pull of gravity on Friday for the first time since July.
"Nick was feeling slightly, just a bit woozy as well," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
"He's doing just fine," he said.
It was not until about an hour before the landing that NASA decided where to bring the shuttle home. There were showers over Florida, which forced NASA to bypass the first opportunity to land, and crosswinds at the usual back-up landing site, Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert.
NASA was not thrilled about the next-best landing site, White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where the weather looked good -- it lacks the cranes and other equipment needed to transport the shuttle back to its home at Cape Canaveral and service the ship on the ground. Only once has a shuttle landed there, in 1982. NASA flew in equipment and dozens of worker from Kennedy in preparation for a possible landing.
Ultimately, NASA gave the go-ahead for a Florida landing when it appeared the rain would not reach Cape Canaveral. The shuttle came in through scattered clouds.
"If you were to ask me before the flight what I wanted for Christmas, what I wanted was a safe and successful shuttle flight," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations.
"This is just a tremendous way to end this year," he said.
Several hours before the landing, space station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria played a recording of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
"Thought this might be appropriate for Discovery," radioed Lopez-Alegria, a US astronaut.
Discovery's return completed NASA's third shuttle flight of 2006, the most since 2002. After the Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts in 2003, the space agency struggled to redesign the shuttle's fuel tank and resume regular construction of the half-built international space station.
Before this year, the only shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster was a single test mission in 2005.
"Yes, this was a big year," Griffin said.
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