CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —Discovery ended its career as the world's most flown spaceship Wednesday, 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.
When it landed three minutes before noon EST, Discovery ceased being a reusable rocketship.
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"For the final time: wheels stop," commander Steven Lindsey called out when the shuttle rolled to a stop.
Lindsey said it was hard emotionally to leave the cockpit; he was the last of the six crew members to climb out of the shuttle.
Dozens of NASA officials — flight directors, launch managers, former astronauts — joined the crew on the runway to admire the shuttle and pose for pictures.
"It came back as perfect on its final flight as it did on its first flight," said Lindsey, noting that "it's a pretty bittersweet moment for all of us."
Even after shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis make their final voyages in the coming months, Discovery will still hold the 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 program.
For the first time in 50 years, NASA is uncertain what is next for the U.S. space flight program. Congress wants the agency to build a new heavy-lift rocket, but the agency says it can't do it with the funding Congress has provided by the Dec. 31, 2016, deadline it's been given.
After Atlantis' last flight, astronauts will be taken to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets, while cargo will ride aboard a new generation of commercial rockets.
As soon as Discovery rolled to a halt, NASA's oldest and most-traveled orbiter — it began service in 1984 — was back in the hands of Stephanie Stilson and her team. They will spend weeks inspecting the spaceship, then several months decommissioning it to make what one historian called "the champion of the fleet" into a museum piece.
Most likely, Discovery will wind up in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum in Washington. NASA has offered Discovery to that museum, and the Smithsonian wants it but has yet to figure out how to pay the $28.8 million cost of decommissioning and delivery. A final decision will be announced in mid-April.
If all works out, officials expect to hand Discovery over to the Smithsonian sometime this fall. It will make the 750-mile journey strapped to the top of a jumbo jet.
Mission was smooth
Discovery's last mission unfolded smoothly despite a four-month grounding for fuel tank repairs and a liftoff Feb. 24 in the last two seconds of the launch window.
Throughout the flight, Lindsey and his crew marveled at how well Discovery was performing. They noted that the spacecraft was going into retirement still "at the top of her game."
Perhaps more than any other shuttle, Discovery consistently delivered.
It made its debut in 1984 following shuttles Columbia and Challenger, dispatched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, flew the first shuttle rendezvous to Russia's Mir space station and carried the first female shuttle pilot in 1995, and gave another ride into space to John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, in 1998.
It got NASA flying again, in 1988 and 2005, following the Challenger and Columbia disasters. And it flew 13 times to the space station, more than any other craft. On its last trip, it delivered a humanoid robot and a new storage compartment packed with supplies.
"You're sad to see her be retired, but at the same time, it's really a pride thing. We got her back OK. It was a beautiful mission," said Ken Smith, a Boeing propulsion manager who monitored the shuttle's systems from the landing strip.
But he added: "We've got two more to fly."
Launch director Mike Leinbach acknowledged "there were no big emotional outbursts and tears" on the runway. While there was a mood of "can't believe the program is coming to an end," the team carried out its job as usual, he noted.
"The time for reflection, I think, comes later," Leinbach told reporters.
Endeavour is due to blast off April 19; Atlantis, June 28.