Discovery makes final touchdown

Discovery ended its career as the world's most flown spaceship yesterday, returning from orbit for the last time and taking off in a new direction as a museum piece.

After a flawless trip to the International Space Station, Nasa's oldest shuttle swooped through a few wispy clouds on its way to its final touchdown.

“To the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say, 'Farewell Discovery',” declared Mission Control commentator Josh Byerly.

Florida's spaceport was packed with shuttle programme workers, journalists and even some school children eager to see history in the making.

The six astronauts on board went through their landing checklists with the bittersweet realisation that no-one would ever ride Discovery again.

They said during their 13-day space station delivery mission that they expected that to hit them hard when the shuttle came to a stop on the runway.

At three minutes before noon Eastern Time, Discovery landed and ceased being a reusable rocketship.

“For the final time: wheels stop,” Discovery's commander Steven Lindsey called out when the shuttle rolled to a stop. He was the last member of the crew to climb out of the craft.

Even after shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis make their final voyages in the coming months, Discovery will still hold the all-time record with 39 missions, 148 million miles, 5,830 orbits of Earth, and 365 days spent in space. All that was achieved in under 27 years.

Discovery now leads the way to retirement as Nasa winds down the 30-year shuttle programme in favour of interplanetary travel.

Nasa estimates it will take several months of work - removing the three main engines and draining all hazardous fuels - before Discovery is ready to head to the Smithsonian Institution. It will make the 750-mile journey strapped to the top of a jumbo jet.

Nasa's boss, Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander, will announce the final homes for Endeavour and Atlantis on April 12, 30 years to the day that Columbia soared on the first shuttle flight.

Nasa planned to move Endeavour out to the launch-pad yesterday night for its April 19 lift-off, but delayed the move until tomorrow because bad weather was expected.

Atlantis is scheduled to make its last trip at the end of June.

Nasa is under presidential direction to spread its wings beyond low-Earth orbit. The goal is to send astronauts to an asteroid and then Mars in the decades ahead. There is not enough money for Nasa to achieve that and maintain the shuttle programme at the same time. As a result, the shuttles will stop flying this summer after 30 years.

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