KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--Enduring the heat of re-entry one last time, the shuttle Discovery dropped out of orbit and returned to Earth today to wrap up a near-flawless 39th and final mission, marking the beginning of the end for NASA's winged rocket ships.
After firing its twin braking rockets for a computer-controlled descent halfway around the planet, commander Steven Lindsey took over manual control and guided Discovery through a 250-degree left turn to line up on runway 15.
Pilot Eric Boe then deployed the ship's landing gear and the 204,000-pound shuttle swooped to a tire-smoking touchdown on runway 15 at 11:57:17 a.m. EST.
Lindsey had no problems with a stiff 25-knot headwind, and a few moments later, NASA's oldest surviving space shuttle rolled to a halt, wrapping up a career spanning some 5,750 orbits, 148 million miles, and 365 days in space during 39 missions since its maiden launch in August 1984.
"And Houston, Discovery, for the final time, wheels stopped," Lindsey radioed flight controllers in Houston.
"Discovery, Houston, great job by you and your crew," replied astronaut Charles Hobaugh in mission control. "That was a great landing in tough conditions and it was an awesome docked mission you all had...So job well done."
With only two more missions left on NASA's shuttle manifest--a flight by Endeavour in April and a final voyage by Atlantis in late June--Discovery's landing marked the beginning of the end for the world's most complex and expensive to operate manned rocket.
"We're seeing a program come to a close here and to see these shuttles, these beautiful, magnificent flying machines end their service life is obviously a little bit sad for us," astronaut Michael Barratt said earlier this week.
"But it is about time, they've lived a very long time, they've had a fabulous success record, they've built this magnificent space station, they've given us lots of science and a tremendous amount of experience of just how to operate in space. More than anything, we look forward to seeing them retire with dignity and bringing on the next line of spaceships."
Lindsey, Boe, Barratt and their crewmates--Nicole Stott and spacewalkers Stephen Bowen and Alvin Drew--were welcomed home by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and scores of other agency managers and engineers who turned out for Discovery's final homecoming.
"This is a pretty bittersweet moment for all of us," Lindsey said on the runway. "As the minutes pass, I'm getting sadder and sadder about this being the last flight. And I know all the folks involved in the shuttle program feel the same way."
Lindsey thanked Discovery's processing team at the Kennedy Space Center for "giving us just a fantastic vehicle to fly. It was a privilege to be in charge of her for just a couple of weeks and I'm sad to give her back. But I couldn't imagine giving her back into better hands than this group right here."
Over the course of an extended 13-day mission, Lindsey and his crewmates attached a final U.S. module to the International Space Station, delivered a spare set of radiator panels and an external stowage platform, and transferred several tons of supplies and equipment to the lab complex.
Bowen and Drew also staged two spacewalks to accomplish a variety of long-planned maintenance tasks. And the astronauts helped their station colleagues service a U.S. oxygen generator and a carbon dioxide removal system.
With Discovery safely back on Earth, engineers in the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building made final preparations to haul the shuttle Endeavour to launch pad 39A tomorrow for work to ready the ship for its 25th and final launch April 19.
If all goes well, NASA will close out the shuttle program by launching the Atlantis June 28 on a final space station resupply mission.
Discovery's landing brought that long-awaited--and to some, long-dreaded--end game into sharp focus. Barratt captured the thoughts of many space workers when he reflected on the shuttle program's legacy from orbit.
"I think about this space shuttle fleet like the clipper ships that were strong and fast and powerful, they did their jobs but they were also graceful and beautiful," he said. "They conjured up imagination, of foreign travel, exotic places, of exploration. And Discovery is just an elite member of this elite fleet.
"We have the legacy of the clippers in our shuttle fleet and it's a legacy that everybody who's ever touched these vehicles should be extremely proud of. I think the only problem area there is we don't have that follow on, we're not replacing the shuttle with something and I think that's what makes it a little bit sad for us."
At the same time, he said, "it is a time to celebrate."
"The legacy this spaceship has made for herself is just nothing more than cause for celebration. She's returned so much science, so much experience, and the experience that we as crew members have had has just been marvelous and, again, something our country should be very, very proud of."
Over the next few months, Discovery will be decommissioned and ultimately turned into a museum display.
NASA has not yet announced where the orbiters will end up, but it's widely expected that one of them will be displayed at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.