Touchdown: Three spacefarers back on Earth after 167-day mission and doing ‘really great’ |

Touchdown: Three spacefarers back on Earth after 167-day mission and doing ‘really great’

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Space shuttle Discovery glided to a landing Wednesday, bringing home three spacefarers who spent nearly six months aboard the international space station.

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev and his American crewmates, Susan Helms and Jim Voss, were weak and wobbly after spending so much time in weightlessness but managed to walk off the shuttle, instead of being carried off on stretchers.

Shuttle commander Scott Horowitz reported that all three were doing great.

”In fact, we were surprised,” Horowitz said after he and the six others who returned aboard Discovery left the shuttle. ”It looked like they were doing a little better than us when we got off the vehicle today, so they’re real troupers. They had a great mission.”

Their homecoming was delayed 1 hours by dark clouds and rain near the landing strip. When Mission Control finally gave Discovery clearance to land, the three former space station residents cheered so loudly that the rest of the crew, seated upstairs, could hear them without the intercom.

The midafternoon landing ended a 167-day mission for Usachev, Helms and Voss, just 21 days shy of NASA’s space endurance record. They circled Earth about 2,600 times and logged 70 million miles during the adventure.

About 300 people gathered along the Kennedy Space Center runway to welcome back Discovery and, in particular, the space station’s second resident crew.

Among the well-wishers: the wives and daughters of Usachev and Voss and the parents of Helms, who is single.

The reunion ”made my heart beat fast,” said shuttle astronaut Daniel Barry.

”When they came in the door and they walked under their own power into the room and everybody just cheered and tears of joy and everything, it was amazing,” Horowitz said.

The three former space station residents face at least six weeks of medical tests and rehabilitation, beginning immediately. They had to endure the first round of tests before they could satisfy their cravings – a salad for Helms, hamburger for Voss, and cheese and coffee for Usachev.

Despite daily exercise in orbit, their muscles and bones were weakened by weightlessness and their immune systems were depressed. Barry said they seemed surprisingly fit.

”It was obvious to me how much time and effort they have put into staying in shape,” said Barry, a specialist in rehabilitation medicine. ”By their appearance coming off the orbiter, that is going to pay off big time.”

To ease the jolt of gravity, Usachev, Helms and Voss came back lying on reclining seats. Doctors and rescue crews were standing by to help them off the shuttle, just in case.

Discovery also delivered a fresh crew to the space station: American commander Frank Culbertson and two Russians, Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin. They will remain on the space station until December. NASA’s next shuttle flight, by Endeavour, will be their ride home.

Discovery dropped off more than five tons of gear at the space station during its 12-day flight and brought back two tons of dirty clothes, empty food containers, packing foam and discarded equipment.

During their space station stay, Usachev, Helms and Voss took delivery of a robot arm and an air lock and overcame repeated computer problems. They also entertained the world’s first paying space tourist, California millionaire Dennis Tito.

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