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Space experiments back on track

Discovery's astronauts are returning to Earth with brightened hope for those whose experiments ride the shuttle. NASA officials hail the flight's success as a new beginning for the United States space program. But it's also a new start for student experimenters like Lloyd Bruce and Richard Cavoli whose projects are now running, after being halted by the Challenger accident.

It's a new beginning for industrial scientists, like Christopher Podsiadly, who want to study the basics of making materials in zero gravity. He and his Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (3M) team are resuming a long-term program of experiments.

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Flight controllers say that, if all continues to go well, this will be one of the most successful shuttle missions yet. It has completed virtually all of its objectives. These include deployment of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, now in a 22,300-miles-high orbit in perfect working order. At this writing, Discovery was to land at Edwards Air Force, Calif., at 12:41 p.m. (EDT) today.

There have been a few minor malfunctions. Astronauts had to restow a balky antenna. And there has been a continuing effort to deal with ice in the system that cools Discovery's cabin during reentry. Flight controllers say they think the shuttle team can solve the problem. Even without the system's full use, they say they know how to keep the cabin comfortable during reentry.

Flight director Milt Heflin put these few failures in perspective by noting that they are all that has gone wrong so far out of many thousands of systems and devices on the spacecraft. ``That's great,'' he said.

He also praised the experimenters, whose projects are working so well.

Discovery carries a number of materials experiments. They include growing various types of crystals and separation of biological materials. They are supplied both by NASA, sometimes in cooperation with university scientists, and by several companies in partnership with NASA. There is also proprietary research, such as the 3M experiment.

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