Space Swede returns to Earth

At 23.32 on Friday night Swedish time, the space shuttle Discovery landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with Swede Christer Fuglesang onboard. And it may not be the last time that the Swedish astronaut goes into space, according to his boss.

Just before landing TT’s correspondent Lars Pedersen saw the shuttle approaching.

“Then there were two short bangs. They were the sonic booms as Discovery broke the sound barrier.”

Discovery made a swing from the north and landed on the 4.5 kilometre runway after a steep approach to the Kennedy Space Center. When the shuttle landed its speed was around 350 kilometres per hour.

“Congratulations on what was probably the most complicated mission so far,” said ground control to commander Mark Polansky and his crew as Discovery came to a standstill on the runway.

Nasa director Mike Griffin seemed relieved a few minutes after the landing as he stood surrounded by smiling colleagues.

At 16.49 Swedish time on Friday the crew of Discovery began to prepare the shuttle for leaving its orbit path. But right up until the end of the mission it was unclear where and when the shuttle would land. Just as at the beginning of the mission, the weather was the problem.

As Discovery made another loop around the world, ground control weighed up the three alternatives: in Florida, at the Edwards Airforce Base in California or at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

Then at 21.15 Swedish time Nasa gave the crew the all-clear to begin taking on fluids to ease their return to the Earth’s gravity. Just over an hour later, meteorologists decided that the weather in Florida was good enough for a landing.

12 days, 20 hours and 45 minutes after lift-off, Discovery touched down at the Kennedy Space Center.

Before the trip, Christer Fuglesang’s chances of being given another mission were put at 50-50. After his contribution to Mission STS-116, it is 100 percent certain that he will be asked again, said the Swede’s boss, Michael Tognini, who is in charge of the European Space Agency’s astronauts.

“He’s going to fly again. There is a lack of astronauts with experience of space walks and Christer is one of the most experienced,” he said.

Next year Fuglesang turns 50, but age is unlikely to be a barrier – at least as far as he is concerned. The particle physicist from Stockholm has stated repeatedly that he wants to go back into space.

Minutes after Fuglesang returned to Earth, Sweden’s prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt congratulated him.

“Welcome home. It has been exciting to follow your journey. I want to congratulate you on a job well done and for being the first Swede in space,” said Reinfeldt via his press secretary Roberta Alenius.