Shuttle Discovery lands safely, ends flying career

Houston: Space shuttle Discovery has ended a very successful and flawless 13-day spaceflight with a smooth landing in Florida, ending a 27-year flying career for the world`s most-travelled spaceship.

With commander Steven Lindsey at the controls, Discovery touched down and sent word to Mission Control at Johnson Space Center.

"Houston, Discovery for the final time, wheels stop."

And so ended the final flight of NASA`s fleet leader.

The discovery landed safely last morning at Kennedy Space Center in Florida marking the end of Discovery`s missions.

Dozens of people gathered at Johnson Space Station in Houston to watch the shuttle make its final landing.

Its near-flawless performance proved once again why Discovery has generally been NASA`s most reliable orbiter.

"It performed extraordinarily well in orbit," said launch director Mike Leinbach.

"The launch was excellent. The on-orbit mission success speaks for itself, well over 100 per cent of the objectives accomplished. The landing today was outstanding.

"We wanted to go out on a high note, and Discovery has done it. We couldn`t ask for any more. It was virtually a perfect mission."

Discovery`s next flight will be not to low-Earth orbit, where it has now flown 39 times since 1984, but rather to the Smithsonian Institution.

The landing marked the beginning of the true end of the shuttle programme, as Discovery will be the first of NASA`s three operational orbiters to be retired.

Soon after landing, the six astronauts of Discovery`s final mission greeted NASA officials on the runway at Kennedy Space Center.

The astronauts in blue flight suits shook hands and shared hugs with officials, including NASA administrator Charles Bolden and Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana, both former astronauts themselves.

With just two more space launches planned, Endeavour in April and Atlantis in June, the US space programme will be shutting its doors.

The closure of the space programme means an estimated 7,000 jobs will be lost at Kennedy Space Center as well, and NASA is not sure what lies ahead for the US space flight programme.

Congress would like to see NASA build a heavy-lift rocket, but NASA says that will not be possible without the same level of funding they were being given already, which has just been cut.

The Discovery will not fade away into the mist however.

After the shuttle touched down, it was placed in the hands of Stephanie Stilson and her team where they will spend several months inspecting and decommissioning the spacecraft.

Once Stilson and her team is done with the shuttle, Discovery will be rigged up so that it can be turned into a museum piece never to be forgotten.