Space shuttle makes final touchdown
Discovery lands at Cape Canaveral, capping off a 27-year flying career which saw it spend a full 365 days in orbit.
Last Modified: 09 Mar 2011 18:53 GMT
On its final mission, Discovery delivered supplies and materials to the International Space Station [AFP/NASA]

The space shuttle Discovery has made smooth landing at Cape Canaveral, Florida, capping off its 39th and final mission for NASA.

Wednesday's touchdown ends a 27-year flying career for the agency's most well-travelled shuttle, and it is now headed to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, where it will be put on display.

Steven Lindsey, the commander of the shuttle, circled the ship through clear, sunny skies over the Kennedy Space Centre to burn off speed, and then landed the craft on the runway, just a few miles away from where the shuttle made its final blast-off on February 24.

The landing capped a successful cargo run and construction mission at the International Space Station.

In its 39 missions, the shuttle accumulated 365 days in orbit, racking up more than 238 million kilometres. It will now be prepared for display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

"Houston, Discovery. For the final time, wheels stop," Lindsey radioed to Mission Control in Houston, as the shuttle
stood still on the runway.

"Great job by you and your crew," replied astronaut Charlie Hobaugh from Mission Control.

"That was an awesome mission that you all had. You were able to take Discovery up to a full 365 days of actual time on orbit. I think that you'd call that a fleet leader, and a leader of any manned vehicle for time in orbit. So, job well done," Hobaugh said.

The United States is ending the 30-year-old shuttle program because of its high operating costs and to free up funds to begin work on new spaceships that can travel to the moon, asteroids and other destinations beyond the ISS's
350-km-high orbit.

The US congress, however, has not yet allocated funds for any new programmes.

Two other space shuttles, Endeavour and Atlantis, will make their final voyages in April and June respectively, delivering the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector, and a year's worth of supplies to the station. The $100 billion research station is a project of 16 countries and has been under construction since 1998.

During its final mission, Discovery delivered a combination storage room-research lab to the station, as well as an external platform to house large spare parts.

It also carried several tons of supplies and science gear, including a prototype humanoid robot that was built in partnership with US automobile manufacturer General Motors.

Astronauts Stephen Bowen and Alvin Drew made two spacewalks to help prepare the station for operations after shuttle
retirement. NASA has turned over station crew transport to Russia, though it hopes US commercial companies will
develop space taxis so it can buy flight services domestically.

Discovery is NASA's oldest surviving spaceship. Two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were lost in accidents in
1986 and 2003, killing a total of 14 astronauts.

Discovery became the de facto fleet leader, flying both of NASA's return-to-flight missions after the accidents. It now will lead the fleet into retirement.

A decision about where Endeavour and Atlantis will be displayed is expected next month.

In addition to Lindsey, Bowen and Drew, the last shuttle Discovery crew included pilot Eric Boe and astronauts Nicole Stott and Michael Barratt.

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