KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Their mission over but hardly accomplished, space shuttle Columbia's astronauts returned Friday to a lukewarm welcome and an inquiry into the bungled release of a satellite.
Commander Kevin Kregel tried to make the best of it.
"We had a very interesting and eventful 16 days," he said after emerging from Columbia. "We had a little bit of downtrodden times there. But together as a team . . . I think we ended up with a very super mission."
The shuttle and its international crew of six glided through a clear, chilly sky just after daybreak, bringing back the $10-million science satellite that got away from them and required a daring spacewalk rescue.
Mission Control skipped the customary congratulations, saying only: "Welcome home, Columbia. Excellent landing."
NASA expects the Spartan satellite to hold the answers to what went wrong in orbit. It will be impounded as soon as it is unloaded from Columbia next week, and its computer links will be analyzed by investigators.
The sun-watching satellite never received a crucial computer command before it was released Nov. 21, either because of crew error or bad software. Spartan malfunctioned, and an attempt to grab it with the shuttle robot arm sent it into an uncontrollable spin. It gathered no information about the sun.
Rookie astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who was in charge of the satellite and operated the robot arm, said from orbit that to the best of her knowledge she sent all the necessary commands.
"We're not going to speculate," Kregel told reporters several hours after landing.
Kregel said no one on his crew wasted time moping in orbit.
"What's done is done, and so we got on with the mission and we didn't worry about it," he said.
NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin preferred to dwell on the crew's successes--notably a bevy of science experiments and the successful debut of a roving, robotic camera intended for the soon-to-be-built international space station.