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Veteran US shuttle ends historic spaceflight career
  • | AFP | March 10, 2011 08:53 AM

The oldest and most traveled US space shuttle, Discovery, landed back on Earth Wednesday after its final space flight and will soon become a museum piece to delight the crowds.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (L) and Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana share a laugh after the space shuttle Discovery landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, March 9, 2011. REUTERS

The shuttle cruised onto the Kennedy Space Center runway at 11:57 am (1657 GMT), wrapping up a rich, 27-year career in spaceflight that has endured longer and spanned further 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).

"This is very bittersweet for all of us," said NASA chief Charles Bolden, who as a former astronaut traveled aboard Discovery twice. "Discovery holds a special place for me," he added, calling the last mission "incredible."

Discovery\'s last trip to the International Space Station (ISS) 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 ISS, though it spent most of its time wrapped in packing materials and will not become fully operational for some time.

"We wanted to go out on a high note and Discovery has done that," said Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director. "From a mission success perspective, I couldn\'t be happier."

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 its last 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.

Discovery is widely expected to join Enterprise at the Smithsonian Institution\'s National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a vast hangar near Dulles airport in Virginia.

But NASA is withholding its official announcement about Discovery\'s destination until April 12.

In the meantime, NASA engineers plan to strip Discovery of its useful equipment, such as the main propulsion system, and thoroughly clean it to remove any potentially hazardous materials.

"The vehicle itself is a science platform," said Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team.