The space shuttle Discovery landed safely in California on Friday after bad weather forced a switch of its touchdown site at the end of a two-week mission to the International Space Station.
NASA diverted the spaceship to Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert after waiting in vain for two days for rain and clouds to clear over the shuttle's home port in Florida, the originally scheduled landing location.
Under partly cloudy desert skies, the shuttle landed at 8:53 p.m. EDT on Friday (0053 GMT on Saturday).
"Welcome home Discovery, congratulations on an extremely successful mission," astronaut Eric Boe radioed to the crew as Discovery came to a stop.
Banking into its final landing approach visible from a whisp of twin contrails, Discovery first appeared from the ground as a white speck glinting in the fading sunlight high over the northeastern horizon.
The orbiter then swiftly descended to the base's main runway, a dull roar of aerodynamic drag growing louder, and touched down with a puff of smoke as the rear wheels made contact with the runway at a speed of 250 miles per hour (402 kph).
Just minutes before, double sonic booms thundered through the sky as Discovery dipped below the speed of sound for the first time since blasting off on Aug. 28, one minute before midnight, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on NASA's 128th space shuttle mission.
Flight directors had tried on Thursday and Friday to bring Discovery back to Florida.
But rain and thunderstorms -- characteristic of Florida's notoriously volatile weather -- stymied NASA's original landing plans at the Kennedy Space Center, prompting flight directors to switch to the backup site at Edwards Air Force Base on the other side of the country, where skies were clearer.
"We've had some weather challenges, but that's life at the Florida home port," Mike Moses, NASA's shuttle launch integration manager, told a post-landing news conference.
After 219 orbits around Earth, Discovery plunged back through the atmosphere, soaring northeast over the Pacific Ocean toward Southern California.
Commander Rick Sturckow circled Discovery down over the California desert, burning off speed before nose-diving the 100-tonne ship to the concrete landing strip to complete a 5.7-million mile (9.1-million km) journey.
Sturckow, pilot Kevin Ford, flight engineer Jose Hernandez, spacewalkers Danny Olivas and Christer Fuglesang, and astronaut Pat Forrester flew back to Earth with a new crewmember, returning space station flight engineer Tim Kopra, who had been in orbit at the station for two months.
Kopra's replacement, Nicole Stott, will remain on the space station until NASA returns to the outpost in November.
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She was the last station crewmember to catch a ride to the outpost on the shuttle and will be the last NASA astronaut to fly home on one as well.
NASA is turning over crew transport to the station to Russia, at a cost of about $50 million per seat, as it begins phasing out the shuttle. The space agency is also considering hiring U.S. commercial firms to ferry its astronauts.
During its latest mission, Discovery carried more than 7.5 tonnes of food, laboratory equipment, science experiments, spare parts, a new treadmill and crew quarters for the space station.
The space outpost is a $100 billion project involving 16 nations, which is nearing completion after more than a decade of construction.
Olivas, Fuglesang -- a Swedish astronaut with the European Space Agency -- and Stott made three spacewalks to replace a refrigerator-sized tank of ammonia coolant and prepare the station for its final connecting hub.
NASA has six flights remaining to finish outfitting the station. It then plans to retire the shuttles and move on with development of a capsule and rocket that could ferry crews to the moon.
Those plans may change as President Barack Obama considers the results of a study that has determined NASA's lunar ambitions exceed its budget by about $3 billion a year.