Space shuttle Discovery touched down at the Kennedy Space Center for the final time today, ending its career as the most-traveled spacecraft in history.
Discovery's tires kissed the giant runway just before noon. As the orbiter rolled to a stop under clear blue skies, its black and white tiles gleamed in the sun, showing -- in some places -- every bit of Discovery's nearly 27 years.
But Discovery performed just as flawlessly on its 39th mission as it did on its first. The nearly two-week STS-133 mission delivered the last major U.S. module to the space station, along with supplies for the orbiting outpost's residents.
"Discovery launched and came back on this flight just like my previous two flights on Discovery -- with absolutely no liens against her; no single system with any problems whatsoever," Commander Steven Lindsay said after climbing out of the cockpit and inspecting the now-retired ship. "If you think about a vehicle that's 26, 27 years old, been flying for that long, to come back perfect, I have never seen an airplane able to do that."
"We wanted to go out on a high note and Discovery's done that," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach later added. "It was a virtually perfect mission."
The mission may have been its last, but Discovery will take to the skies one more time – on the back of NASA's shuttle-ferrying plane. The agency plans to deliver the orbiter to the Smithsonian Institution for display – but only after a few months of decommissioning work.
Discovery's two sister orbiters will also wind up in museums, but they each have one more flight planned. Endeavour is scheduled to fly in late April, and Atlantis will make the 135th and final flight of the shuttle program in June, provided Congress approves the funds.
And what comes next for NASA? No one really knows.
When the shuttle retirement was announced, NASA expected to replace the aging fleet with a series of shuttle-derived rockets that would launch capsules back to the moon. But that program has been scrapped, and once Atlantis' final mission is complete, the U.S. will rely on Russian rockets to fly astronauts to the space station.
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