Cape Canaveral, Florida (AFP) March 9, 2011
The oldest and most traveled space shuttle, Discovery, landed back on Earth Wednesday after its final space flight and will now end its days as a museum piece to delight the crowds.
The shuttle cruised onto the runway at Kennedy Space Center at 1657 GMT, wrapping up a rich, 27-year career in spaceflight that has spanned more distance and endured longer than any of the remaining three US shuttles.
"And Houston, Discovery. For the final time, wheelstop," Commander Steve Lindsey said when the orbiter came to a halt on the runway.
Discovery's arrival back on Earth marks the beginning of the end for the three-decade old US shuttle program, which will formally close down after Endeavour and Atlantis take their final spaceflights in the coming months.
"This legend has spent 365 days in space," NASA mission control in Houston said, noting that over the course of its 39 missions, Discovery has logged almost 149 million miles (241 million kilometers).
Discovery's last trip to the International Space Station was initially scheduled to last 11 days but was extended to 13 so that astronauts could work on repairs and install a spare room.
The new permanent module they brought to the orbiting lab adds 21 by 15 feet (6.5 by 4.5 meters) of extra room for storage and experiments.
Astronauts also carried the first humanoid robot to the International Space Station (ISS), though it spent most of its time wrapped in packing materials and will not become fully operational for some time.
A NASA press conference to recap the mission is scheduled for 2:00 pm (1900 GMT).
Endeavour is set for its last trip into orbit beginning April 19, followed by the shuttle Atlantis on June 28, marking the last shuttle mission ever.
After that, the sole method of transport to and from the ISS will be via Russia's Soyuz space capsules, which can carry three people at a time.
Discovery has broken new ground multiple times since it first launched in 1984.
It transported the Hubble Space telescope, helped carry the Japanese Kibo lab to the ISS, was the first shuttle to be commanded by a female astronaut and the first to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station.
The shuttle was also the first to return to space after two major disasters -- the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Columbia disaster in 2003 when the shuttle broke up on its return toward Earth.
On this mission, Discovery carried an all-American crew of six, including Lindsey, spacewalkers Steve Bowen and Alvin Drew, pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Nicole Stott and Michael Barratt.
"And to the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say farewell, Discovery," NASA's Kennedy Space Center said in a tweet.
One shuttle is already in a museum outside the US capital, Washington. Enterprise never flew in space but was developed as a prototype for the other five shuttles in the original fleet.
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NASA green lights Discovery launch for Thursday
Cape Canaveral, Florida (AFP) Feb 23, 2011
NASA gave the green light for the space shuttle Discovery to blast off Thursday, saying the countdown to the aging shuttle's final mission before retirement was going "beautifully." Technical failures delayed Discovery's launch in November 2010, but sunny weather and smooth preparations gave engineers every indication that the 39th mission for the historic shuttle would proceed on schedule. ... read more
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