EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) – Space Shuttle Discovery rode piggyback atop a jumbo jet headed for Florida Friday, more than a week after being diverted to the Mojave Desert for the first landing shuttle since the Columbia tragedy.

The modified Boeing 747 carrying Discovery took off Friday morning and arrived in Oklahoma about three hours later – the first leg of a 2,232-mile trip to the shuttle’s home at Cape Canaveral. An Air Force KC-135 flew ahead of the shuttle to monitor weather along the route.

The plane refueled, flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and is scheduled to fly to Florida today. The expected cost of the trip: at least $1 million.

Discovery and its seven-member crew touched down Aug. 9 at NASA’s backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base following a 14-day mission to the international space station. NASA diverted the landing to California after low clouds and lightning prevented the shuttle from returning to Florida during four earlier opportunities.

After landing, Discovery underwent maintenance inside a steel structure on the base two hours north of Los Angeles. Crews purged the shuttle of hazardous substances, removed fuel from the on-board tanks and attached a 10,000-pound aluminum tail cone to eliminate drag during flight.

Discovery’s homecoming has been tempered by uncertainties about the shuttle program’s future.

The same foam problems that doomed Columbia 21/2 years ago showed up during Discovery’s liftoff, prompting NASA to ground all shuttle flights until 2006 so engineers could find a solution.

A chunk of foam insulation broke off Discovery’s redesigned external fuel tank during liftoff on July 26, but unlike in Columbia’s case, the foam missed hitting Discovery. Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts on board.

NASA ground crews who inspected Discovery after its return from orbit found little damage to its exterior.

On the Net:

Discovery mission: http://www.nasa.gov/returntoflight

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