Tearful NASA salutes space shuttle Discovery
Journey's end for venerable spacecraft
The long and distinguished career of space shuttle Discovery ended yesterday at 16:57 GMT when the venerable vehicle touched down at Kennedy Space Center at the end of its final flight.
Speaking to the press shortly after landing, commander Steve Lindsey said: "It was a great day to come back and land in Florida, we're happy to bring Discovery home."
He added: "As hard as it was to leave the flight deck when we were all done – at least for me it was – we were really focused today on bringing it [the shuttle] home safe. We were really working hard the whole mission and didn't have a whole lot of time to reflect about that."
"I did notice when I was on the ramp and walking around afterward as the minutes passed I kind of got more and more sad looking at the vehicle and how healthy it is and wonderful it performed, not just on this flight but the other two flights that I flew on, as well as every other flight. It kind of got sadder for me as the minutes rolled past."
Among a tearful NASA's tributes to Discovery is this montage (big version here) featuring all its 39 mission patches:
The agency says of the spacecraft: "It has flown to space more than any other craft, and it has carried more crew members to orbit.
"It has visited two space stations. It launched a telescope that has seen deeper in space and in time than ever before. And twice it has demonstrated the United States' will to persevere following devastating tragedy, returning America to orbit following the two worst accidents in space history."
Discovery was delivered from the shuttle assembly plant in Palmdale, California, to the Kennedy Space Centre in November 1983. Its first mission was STS-41D, which launched on 30 August, 1984, carrying three comms satellites.
In April 1990, Discovery had the honour of deploying the Hubble Space Telecope during the STS-31 mission. Future NASA administrator Charles F Bolden was selected as pilot, and by February 1994, he'd been promoted to commander for STS-60.
That mission was also notable for the presence alongside the Discovery crew of Sergei Krikalev, the first cosmonaut to fly on a US spacecraft.
Rendezvous at Mir
A year later, Vladimar G Titov became the second cosmonaut to enjoy US hospitality, when he joined the crew of STS-63 for the first space shuttle rendezvous with the Mir Space Station.
Pilot Eileen Collins – the first woman to take the controls of a shuttle – nudged Discovery to within 37 feet of Mir, at which point commander James D Wetherbee declared: "As we are bringing our spaceships closer together, we are bringing our nations closer together. The next time we approach, we will shake your hand and together we will lead our world into the next millenium."
Eileen Collins went on to become the first female shuttle commander on Columbia's STS-93 mission, during which she oversaw the deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
She was back on board Discovery (see pic, with pilot James Kelly) as commander of the shuttle's second Return to Flight launch – STS-114 to the International Space Station – after the loss of Columbia in 2003.
Discovery travelled to the ISS 13 times. It was the first shuttle to dock there in 1999 during STS-96, and subsequently broke further new ground in October 2007 when STS-120 commander Pam Melroy and ISS commander Peggy Whitson became the first women of that rank to be aloft simultaeously.
The spacecraft's final mission was to return the converted Leonardo – now dubbed the Permanent Multipurpose Module and mated with the ISS's Unity node.
Before Discovery closed its hatch on the ISS for the last time, station commander Scott Kelly said: "It was a very successful time onboard. We enjoyed having you as guests, we're going to miss you, and we're going to miss space shuttle Discovery. Discovery been a great ship and has really supported ISS more than any other shuttle and we wish her fair winds and following seas. Thank you."
The next morning, the shuttle's crew were treated to a wake-up message from William Shatner, who declared to the backing of the Star Trek theme: “Space, the final frontier. These have been the voyages of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Her 30-year mission: To seek out new science. To build new outposts. To bring nations together on the final frontier. To boldly go, and do, what no spacecraft has done before.”
The final voyage
Discovery's last crew posed for photographers on Kennedy tarmac yesterday (from left to right, mission specialists Nicole Stott and Michael Barratt, pilot Eric Boe, commander Steve Lindsey and mission specialists Alvin Drew and Steve Bowen) before the spacecraft was towed away to be prepared for its final voyage to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach concluded: "We wanted to go out on a high note and Discovery's done that. We couldn't ask for more. It was virtually a perfect mission conducted by a perfect flight crew and a perfect ground crew. I couldn't be happier."
In traditional NASA style, the agency summarises that Discovery "spent 365 days in space, orbited Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles".