Discovery and its seven-member crew are preparing to return home tonight with landing planned for 1:03 a.m. Central time following a flight that will go into the books as the first docking of a shuttle with the International Space Station.
Weather permitting, Discovery's computers will ignite the twin breaking rockets on the tail just before midnight to slow the vehicle toward a descent through the atmosphere high above the Pacific Ocean. The ground track shows the orbiter navigating its way to its seaside home at the Kennedy Space Center from the south after crossing Costa Rica, Cuba, the Florida Everglades, and East of Lake Okechobee.
The forecast for landing still shows a chance of rain within 30 miles of the runway and a possibility of crosswind violations on the 3-mile-long concrete Shuttle Landing Facility. The runway of choice for tonight's landing is Runway 15. The final turn to align the shuttle with the runway would be out over the water with landing from the northwest to the southeast. If landing is delayed one orbit, touchdown one orbit later at 2:38 a.m. CDT.
Following crew wakeup at 4 p.m. today, the astronauts began the final preparations for landing, including closing the hatches to the Spacehab module, which has served as the cargo transfer compartment throughout the flight. The wakeup music was "The Longest Day," to commemorate what spacecraft communicator in Mission Control Mario Runco called a "landing of a different kind." His reference was to the 55th anniversary of the Allied troop landing on the beaches of Normandy during World War II that occurred on June 6, 1944.
If all goes as planned, Discovery's cargo bay doors will swing shut at 9:18 p.m., after which the astronauts will climb into their launch and entry suits and strap into their seats. Commander Kent Rominger, Pilot Rick Husband and Flight Engineer Ellen Ochoa will be joined on the flight deck for entry by Mission Specialist Julie Payette. Tammy Jernigan, Dan Barry and Valery Tokarev will be seated down on the middeck for entry.
If landing occurs on the first opportunity, Discovery will have covered 3.8 million miles during the mission. STS-96 will be the 11th shuttle mission to end in darkness. Five previous flights have ended at Edwards AFB in California and five at KSC.
The next STS-96 mission status report will be issued after landing. The next International Space Station status report will be issued on Thursday, June 10.