Commander Eileen Collins made a perfect night touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base at 10.11pm AEST, ending a problem plagued 14 day trip that has raised new doubts about the US shuttle program.

“Discovery is home,” Mission Control said as the wheels touched down on the 6,800 metre runway.

Shortly before landing two huge sonic booms rang out over the Mojave Desert as the shuttle made its much-delayed return.

NASA personnel broke out in cheers as Commander Collins announced on behalf of her seven astronaut crew that they were back.

“We have had a fantastic mission,” she said in her first words after emerging from the towering craft into the desert sun two hours after landing.

After meticulously inspecting the vehicle, she added: “We are so glad to be able to come back and say it was successful”.

The shuttle was to have landed three hours earlier in Florida but was diverted to the opposite side of the United States after rainstorms thwarted its planned landing at Cape Canaveral.

The shuttle landed in California minutes after it punched through the sound barrier of 1,000 kph with a triumphant double bang.

Applause and relieved cheers broke out across America’s space community as a parachute deployed from the shuttle’s rear, and Discovery came to a full stop in the dark and dusty desert.

“It’s the start of a new era,” said NASA administrator Michael Griffin at a press conference at Cape Canaveral.

NASA chiefs immediately hailed the mission as a success, even though they failed to solve a critical problem that doomed Columbia 30 months ago and caused it to disintegrate in flames on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Columbia tore apart on February 1, 2003 after superheated gases broke through its heat shield, killing all seven astronauts on board.

The tragedy was blamed on insulation foam that fell off and damaged the orbiter’s left wing upon takeoff.

Similar chunks of foam fell off the external tank when Discovery blasted into space on July 26.

NASA said the debris caused no significant damage and gave the green light for landing despite a tear on the cockpit’s thermal blanket.

Discovery is now grounded with the rest of the fleet until the problem is resolved.

The US space agency is optimistic a solution will soon be found, and has tentatively scheduled the next launch for September 22.

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