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Touchdown! Shuttle Discovery Lands at Kennedy, Completes Final Mission

 

Space shuttle Discovery touched down safely at Kennedy Space Center at 11:58 a.m., completing its 27-year spaceflight career and its final mission into space.

After the landing, the runway will be marked to show where Discovery's mission finally ended -- a mark that caps a prolific career, which saw 39 flights in 27 years. Next stop for the orbiter will be retirement from service -- the shuttle will eventually be placed on public display in a museum.

The cheers from the crowd were audible all the way up in the air traffic control tower, NASA wrote on its landing blog.

"I think the legacy that she leaves behind is quite incredible, " shuttle astronaut Michael Barratt said of Discovery, adding that the spacecraft has been "space-kindly" to its crews, largely due to the team of engineers that maintains the ship. "Even though it's the last time, we really do look forward to bringing her back to her home port and back into those caring hands."

Discovery's last landing day

After an early wakeup call this morning, the crew began landing preparations at 6:53 a.m. EST (1153 GMT). The doors of the shuttle's payload bay were closed at 8:12 a.m. EST (1312 GMT).

The astronauts then fired Discovery's orbital maneuvering system engines for about three minutes, in what is called a deorbit burn. This slowed the shuttle down enough for it to begin its hour-long descent.

The unmistakable sound of the arriving space shuttle echoed across Florida's Space Coast -- one last effort for Discovery one last opportunity to make its presence known before the crew could bring it to a safe halt. 

"And Houston, Discovery. For the final time, wheelstop," Commander Lindsey said when the orbiter stopped on the runway. He also thanked the Kennedy team for giving the crew a "terrific vehicle for a final flight."

Discovery is NASA's oldest and most-flown spacecraft, and at the end of its career, had logged about 148 million miles (238 million kilometers) worth of travel. The STS-133 mission is Discovery's 39th and final flight.

One final voyage

NASA launched Discovery's final mission  on Feb. 24, after months of delays owing to problems with the shuttle's external fuel tank. The 13-day mission to the International Space Center delivered supplies, hardware, a new storage module and a humanoid robot assistant to the station and its residents.

NASA is ending its 30-year space shuttle program later this year to focus on exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.

Two remaining shuttle missions are planned – Endeavour's STS-134 flight in April, and the very last STS-135 mission of Atlantis in June. Both missions are headed to the International Space Station to put the final touches on the $100 billion orbiting laboratory.

space shuttle Discovery landing

By coincidence, Endeavour today will roll out to the exact same launch pad used by Discovery to launch its own mission. Endeavour is slated to blast off on its final trip to the space station on April 19. The launch pad move is due to begin at 8 p.m. EST (0100 March 10 GMT) and will be broadcast and webcast live by NASA.

"The legacy for the shuttle fleet and the shuttle program undoubtedly, in my mind, will be the space station," NASA's mission management team leader LeRoy Cain told reporters yesterday. "We could not have assembled this marvelous facility in orbit without the capabilities of the space shuttle."

  *   Photos of Discovery's Final Mission: STS-133
  *   Shuttle Discovery By-the-Numbers: 27 Years as NASA's Space Workhorse
  *   Video: Shuttle Discovery's Twilight Flight Highlights
  *   Video: Shuttle Discovery's Twilight Flight Highlights

Space.com contributed to this report.