Space Shuttle Discovery Lands For Last Time

  • Space shuttle Discovery ended its 39th and final mission Wednesday, touching down at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., just before noon local time.
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    Space shuttle Discovery ended its 39th and final mission Wednesday, touching down at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., just before noon local time.
    NASA
  • During the mission, astronaut Steve Bowen performed a spacewalk with fellow astronaut Alvin Drew to fix a pump on the International Space Station. Bowen is seen here strapped to a robotic arm.
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    During the mission, astronaut Steve Bowen performed a spacewalk with fellow astronaut Alvin Drew to fix a pump on the International Space Station. Bowen is seen here strapped to a robotic arm.
    NASA
  • Space station and Discovery crew members share a meal. From left: Steve Bowen, Nicole Stott, Steve Lindsey, Paolo Nespoli and Michael Barratt.
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    Space station and Discovery crew members share a meal. From left: Steve Bowen, Nicole Stott, Steve Lindsey, Paolo Nespoli and Michael Barratt.
    NASA
  • Steve Bowen (left) and Alvin Drew  work on space station maintenance. The two installed a power cable and moved an ammonia pump during a spacewalk on Feb. 28.
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    Steve Bowen (left) and Alvin Drew work on space station maintenance. The two installed a power cable and moved an ammonia pump during a spacewalk on Feb. 28.
    NASA
  • Alvin Drew emerges from an airlock on the space station on Feb. 28. Drew was the 200th person to perform a spacewalk.
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    Alvin Drew emerges from an airlock on the space station on Feb. 28. Drew was the 200th person to perform a spacewalk.
    NASA
  • Discovery approaches the International Space Station on Feb. 26.
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    Discovery approaches the International Space Station on Feb. 26.
    NASA

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Space shuttle Discovery glided down to Earth for the very last time Wednesday.

Crowds gathered to watch the beloved workhorse of NASA's shuttle fleet roll to a stop on the runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"And Houston, Discovery for the final time, wheel stop," Commander Steve Lindsey reported to Mission Control.

He thanked NASA workers for giving his crew "a perfect vehicle from start to finish on her final flight."

It was a bittersweet and emotional moment for the astronauts, ground crews and NASA managers who have relied on Discovery for more than a quarter-century.

NASA says Discovery has been the most-flown spacecraft in history, logging more than 148 million miles since its first launch in 1984. Its 39 missions add up to a total of 365 days in space — a full year.

Its final mission, delivering a storage room and supplies to the International Space Station, went off without a hitch, showing that the aging spaceship still has the right stuff.

"As you can see from this mission, Discovery is in great shape," lead flight director Bryan Lunney said in a media briefing earlier this week. "You could keep flying it for a long time."

But the space agency is retiring its fleet of three shuttles this year. After they stop flying, astronauts will ride up to the International Space Station on Russian rockets. Within a few years, they may be riding on for-hire space taxis developed by private space companies.

The last launch of space shuttle Endeavour is currently scheduled for April. The last flight of Atlantis — and the final shuttle launch ever — is scheduled for June.

Discovery, the oldest surviving shuttle in the fleet, will be the first to be retired. During its long career, it brought up satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as big chunks of the International Space Station.

Its next stop is expected to be the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Twenty-one different museums across the country have requested a shuttle. NASA chief Charles Bolden will make the final decision, but the space agency has previously stated its intention to offer Discovery to the Smithsonian, with a formal announcement expected on April 12, the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch ever.

When asked whether Discovery is truly headed for the Smithsonian, a spokesperson for the museum sent an e-mail stating that "the Museum is involved in discussions with NASA about transfer of the orbiter and other artifacts from the Shuttle program. The final disposition of Shuttle artifacts will be the decision of NASA."

NASA has said that any museum offered one of the three shuttles will have to pay about $28.8 million to prepare the spaceship for display and transport.

Workers at Kennedy Space Center will need six to nine months to remove potentially toxic or dangerous materials from the spaceships. They will then ferry each shuttle to its final destination on the top of a modified jumbo jet.

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