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'And Houston, Discovery. For the final time, wheelstop'

Last updated on: March 10, 2011 08:21 IST

'And Houston, Discovery. For the final time, wheelstop'

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After a 13-day long successful mission that enabled it to deliver the final US components of the International Space Station, space shuttle Discovery landed back on Earth after its final space flight.

Discovery: 25 years of spaceflight

Discovery will now end its days as a museum piece to delight the crowds.

TRIVIA: Shuttle Discovery's facts and feats

The shuttle cruised onto the runway at Kennedy Space Centre 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.

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Image: The space shuttle Discovery taxis to a stop after landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, March 9
Photographs: Gary Rothstein/Pool/Reuter
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Discovery's final journey to Earth

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As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration begins to retire its ageing shuttle fleet, the spacecraft, which is ending 27 years of service, was due to land at 1158 hours local time after delivering the extra room along with supplies and equipment, including a human-like robot, known as Robonaut 2, the first such robot ever sent to space.


Image: Discovery as seen through a window aboard the ISS
Photographs: Reuters
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'This legend has spent 365 days in space'

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A pair of Discovery astronauts completed two spacewalks to conduct repairs on the outside of the ISS.

Discovery's arrival back on Earth marks the beginning of the end for the three-decade old US shuttle programme, 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 241 million kilometers.


Image: Discovery Pilot Eric Boe (L), Commander Steve Lindsey and mission specialist Alvin Drew (R) work on the aft flight deck of the shuttle
Photographs: Reuters
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Discovery's final journey to Earth

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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 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.


Image: Discovery's vertical stabiliser, orbital maneuvering system pods, remote manipulator system and payload bay are featured in this photo provided by NASA
Photographs: Reuters
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Discovery's final journey to Earth

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The oldest shuttle in the fleet, Discovery has spent a year in orbit and logged many spaceflight firsts. Now it will be the first of the three remaining shuttles to be retired and head to a museum.

It was the first shuttle to return to flight after both the shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents; launched the trailblazing Hubble Space Telescope; made the first US rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station; and made the first and last shuttle trips to rotate crews on the ISS.


Image: NASA astronaut Michael Barratt watches a water bubble float freely near him on the middeck of space shuttle Discovery

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'We couldn't be more pleased'

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NASA will announce Discovery's final destination on April 12, the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch.

The anniversary falls during a time of uncertainty for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's own future.

"We couldn't be more pleased," said LeRoy Cain, NASA's mission management team chairman. "The team just did an outstanding job. The entire space shuttle system just performed outstanding on this entire mission."


Image: An orbital sunrise brightens this view of space shuttle Discovery's vertical stabilizer
Photographs: Reuters
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Discovery's final journey to Earth

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Construction began in 1979 on Discovery, which blasted off into space for the first time in 1984. It has made more flights than any other shuttle and carried more crew members.

NASA officials have largely focused on the ongoing mission rather than the history Discovery is about to make, but occasionally mention that they will be sad to see the shuttle end its long career.

"It's bittersweet and, quite frankly, sad knowing when we land that'll be the end for this vehicle," commander Steve Lindsey said last week in a press conference from space.



Image: NASA astronaut Eric Boe, STS-133 pilot, uses a still camera at an overhead window on the aft flight deck of Discovery to photograph the ISS
Photographs: Reuters
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Discovery's final journey to Earth

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Johnson Space Centre Director Michael Coats, who flew the first Discovery mission, said on NASA television that the space agency can look back with pride on the long history of the shuttle.

"It will take the public a few years to realise the capabilities the shuttle actually had," he said, noting the space station could not have been built without the shuttle fleet's heavy lifting capability.

"There's nothing that's going to come even close to that being developed," he said.



Image: The ISS is seen in this view from the Discovery with the earth's horizon in the background
Photographs: Reuters
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Discovery's final journey to Earth

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NASA plans to shift routine ferrying of astronauts aloft to commercial spaceflight providers and focus its attention on building long-range craft to eventually take people to Mars.

In the short term, the agency must rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to carry astronauts aloft.

NASA has two more shuttle missions planned -- Endeavour's STS-134 flight in April, and the programme's swan song, Atlantis' STS-135 flight in June.

Image: NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman, Expedition 26 flight engineer, occupies the commander's station on the flight deck of Discovery
Photographs: Reuters
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