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Discovery is back; now comes the hard part. `Marvelous! My heart was pounding'

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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.


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