Shuttle Discovery touched down Tuesday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, making a safe return to Earth after a two-week resupply mission to the International Space Station.
NASA’s Mission Control gave Discovery’s astronauts approval for the landing at 9:08 am (1308 GMT) after repeated delays on Monday and earlier Tuesday due to rain and fog.
With Discovery’s return, NASA counts just three more missions before it retires the shuttle fleet.
The space agency will turn to Russia to transport Americans to the orbiting science laboratory until it can help to foster a healthy commercial space taxi industry.
President Obama reinforced the controversial policy during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center last week.
Rain and low clouds in Florida prevented Discovery’s seven astronauts from returning to Earth earlier Tuesday and twice on Monday, stretching their space flight to 15 days.
“Welcome home. Congratulations on an outstanding mission,” Mission Control told the Discovery crew.
“What a great mission,” said Poindexter. “We enjoyed it.”
The shuttle dropped from orbit over the Pacific Ocean and followed a rare course that took it over much of the US upper Midwest and Southeast, leaving a glowing contrail for ground observers.
Discovery’s crew delivered nearly eight tonnes of scientific equipment and other supplies intended to fortify the orbiting science laboratory for operations well beyond the final shuttle flight.
The new research gear includes an Earth observations rack to hold cameras and spectral scanners for studies of the atmosphere, geological formations as well as weather induced crop damage.
Another new experiment monitors changes in the muscle and joint health of the astronauts in the absence of gravity. A new freezer will store specimens for medical and biological experiments.
During three spacewalks, two of the astronauts wrestled with balky bolts to replace a boxy coolant tank that is essential to the long term function of the station’s life support systems.
Poindexter’s crew included pilot Jim Dutton and mission specialists Dottie Metcalf Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, Rick Mastracchio, Clay Anderson and Naoko Yamazaki of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Shuttle Atlantis will fly next, with a lift off tentatively scheduled for May 14.
During its 12-day mission, six astronauts will deliver a Russian mini-research module and external spare parts, including power storage batteries, a communications antenna and a radiator as well as Canadian and European robot arm components.
Endeavour is to follow, with a launch scheduled for July 29.
Endeavour’s cargo includes the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an internationally-sponsored physics investigation for the study of cosmic radiation and anti-matter.
If the scheduling holds, Discovery will lift off for the station on September 16 for the final shuttle flight with yet more cargo and a pressurized storage module.
With only a few missions remaining, many at NASA are beginning to realize the long-running shuttle program is winding down.
“For me, we are heads down focused on the mission, trying to make sure it’s safe and successful,” said Bryan Lunney, the NASA flight director who supervised Discovery’s descent. He’ll oversee Discovery’s journey on the final shuttle flight as well.
“I haven’t gotten too philosophical or concerned about the future. I’m just taking care of business.”