Emerging from a sun-burnished sky, the space shuttle Discovery landed on an ancient lakebed here Monday, kicking up a tongue of dust and a reservoir of goodwill over America's triumphant if still tentative return to space. The smooth landing in the high California desert capped a nearly trouble-free, four-day mission that has helped boost America's civilian space program. The successful flight revived national pride in the exploration of the high frontier 32 months after the explosion of Challenger in which seven people perished.
Discovery, sounding its approach with two characteristic sonic booms, looped around the vast airfield here before touching down at 12:37 p.m. Eastern Time, three seconds after it was scheduled to land.
NASA officials and a host of VIPs, including an election-conscious Vice-President George Bush, were on hand to greet the five-member shuttle crew.
``This is a banner day for all of us at NASA...,'' said NASA administrator James Fletcher.
The agency's associate administrator, Rear Adm. Richard Truly, termed the mission ``an absolutely stunning success.''
There were also hollers and hoopla from the more than 425,000 people - the second largest crowd ever to witness a shuttle landing - who lined the dry lakebed.
Some people waved flags. Others cheered from the rooftops of military buildings. The national anthem could be heard wafting through the crowd.
``It was marvelous! My heart was pounding,'' says Gloria Xavier, who had driven up early in the morning from Laverne, Calif., near Los Angeles.
The Rioses and two other families, also from the Los Angeles area, drove up in the middle of the night Sunday to witness what they considered a part of history. Eleven of them spent the night in a tent in a dusty parking lot here.
``It's the first time I've ever seen anything like this,'' said Ted Rios.
People began arriving at this desolate outpost 70 miles north of Los Angeles more than four days before in campers, motor homes, and other flag-bedecked vehicles to witness the event.
``This was a historic moment,'' said Tom Terhaar, who drove up with three friends from San Diego.
Early indications are that there was no major damage done to Discovery, either in reentry or the rest of the flight. After a quick visual inspection, NASA officials reported only minimal damage to the shuttle's external heat-resistant tiles and the spacecraft's braking system.
``The vehicle is really clean,'' said Admiral Truly.
The extent of the damage will help determine how quickly Discovery can be put back in orbit - and NASA meet an ambitious future shuttle launch schedule.
More extensive study of the orbiter, of course, will have to be done over the next few months.
Discovery will remain here at Edwards Air Force Base, where most of the shuttles land because of the extensive runway system, for about six days. It will then be piggybacked by a Boeing 747 back to Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Meanwhile, many of the people who came to the Mojave Desert Monday will journey back to their own homes carrying a poignant image of a rejuvenated American space program.
``It was really exciting,'' said Alan Butts, who came up from Los Angeles with his wife and two children to watch the landing. His son, Matthew, in a crewcut hairdo and Sunkist T-shirt, liked it, too. ``Besides,'' he said, ``it was better than being in school.