CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. | Discovery ended its career as the world's most flown spaceship Wednesday, returning from orbit for the last time and taking off in a new direction as a museum piece.
After a flawless trip to the International Space Station, NASA's oldest shuttle swooped through a few wispy clouds on its way to its final touchdown.
"To the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say, 'Farewell, Discovery,'" declared Mission Control commentator Josh Byerly.
When it landed three minutes before noon EST, Discovery ceased being a reusable rocket ship.
"For the final time: wheels stop," commander Steven Lindsey called out when the shuttle rolled to a stop. He was the last of the six crew members to climb out of the shuttle.
Dozens of NASA officials — flight directors, launch managers, former astronauts — joined the crew on the runway to admire the shuttle and pose for pictures.
"It's a pretty bittersweet moment for all of us," Mr. Lindsey said. "As the minutes pass, I'm actually getting sadder and sadder about this being the last flight."
Even after shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis make their final voyages in the coming months, Discovery will still hold the all-time record with 39 missions, 148 million miles, 5,830 orbits of Earth, and 365 days spent in space. All that was achieved in under 27 years.
Discovery now leads the way to retirement as NASA winds down the 30-year shuttle program in favor of interplanetary travel.
NASA estimates it will take several months of work — removing the three main engines and draining all hazardous fuels — before Discovery is ready to head to the Smithsonian Institution. It will make the 750-mile journey strapped to the top of a jumbo jet.
Throughout the flight, Mr. Lindsey and his crew marveled at how well Discovery was performing. They noted that the spacecraft was going into retirement still "at the top of her game."
Discovery's last mission unfolded smoothly despite a four-month grounding for fuel-tank repairs and a liftoff Feb. 24 in the last two seconds of the countdown.
"It came back as perfect on its final flight as it did on its first flight," Mr. Lindsey said.
Perhaps more than any other shuttle, Discovery consistently delivered.
It made its debut in 1984 following shuttles Columbia and Challenger, dispatched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, flew the first shuttle rendezvous to Russia's Mir space station, carried the first female shuttle pilot in 1995, and gave another ride into space to John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, in 1998.
It got NASA flying again, in 1988 and 2005, following the Challenger and Columbia disasters. And it flew 13 times to the space station, more than any other craft. On its last trip, it delivered a new storage compartment packed with supplies and a humanoid robot.
"You're sad to see her be retired, but at the same time, it's really a pride thing. We got her back OK. It was a beautiful mission," said Ken Smith, a Boeing propulsion manager who monitored the shuttle's systems from the landing strip.
But he added: "We've got two more to fly."