End of an era: NASA's Discovery comes home

Space shuttle Discovery touches down this morning after completing its final space flight

For the final time, NASA's space shuttle Discovery returned from a journey into space, safely touching down Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

After spending 365 days in orbit in multiple missions, Discovery landed at 11:57 a.m. EST. The shuttle, which first launched into space in August 1984, returned from its final rendezvous with the International Space Station.

The shuttle Discovery lands
The shuttle Discovery touches down for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday. (Photo by Gary Rothstein/Reuters Pool)

With NASA in the process of retiring its shuttle fleet, this was Discovery's final mission. In 26-plus years of space flight, the shuttle craft has flown more than 5,304,000 miles, a NASA mission specialist said.

During the final space flight, the six-member crew delivered spare parts, supplies, experiments and a humanoid robot to the space station. NASA is trying to load the space station up with spare parts and supplies before the shuttles are officially out of commission later this year.

The robot, named Robonaut 2, or R2, is the space station's first humanoid robot. It's designed to help the astronauts living on the station do odd jobs, and one day even assist them with dangerous spacewalks.

This latest mission, which was extended a day to become a 12-day journey, was the 39th Discovery's career. Considered a "fleet leader," the craft returned the U.S. to space flight after the shuttles Challenger and Columbia accidents. It was also the shuttle that carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, and it has since gone aloft twice so astronauts could maintain the telescope.

Discovery also was the first shuttle with a female pilot, Commander Eileen Collins.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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