Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Shuttle Discovery glides home completing her final flight

Discovery rolls out on runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center. (NASA)

Gliding home to a landing after a successful two weeks in orbit, space shuttle Discovery completed her final space flight after twenty-seven years of service.

As landing approached, Discovery performed what NASA labeled "her victory lap around the globe" as she begun her 202 and final orbit of her last flight.

Discovery commander Steve Lindsey and pilot Eric Boe fired the craft's orbital maneuvering system engines for 157 seconds at 10:52 a.m. EST, to slow Discovery down by 188 m.p.h, allowing Discovery to begin her free fall out of earth orbit.

The burn occurred over the east central Indian Ocean off the coast of Malaysia at an altitude of 218 miles above midway through Discovery's 202 orbit of her flight.

Discovery was flying at this time with the tail in the direction of travel and payload bay toward earth.

As Discovery's final minutes in space tick down, the spacecraft's nose will pitch forward 140-degrees as Lindsey lines up Discovery for reentry into the earth's atmosphere.

As Discovery left the last traces of space, the orbiter hit the upper layer of the earth's atmosphere at 11:27 a.m. Friction caused by the fast speed of Discovery against the atmosphere saw temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees bake the orbiter's belly, nose and wing leading edges.

The orbiter made landfall crossing Florida's western coastline near Sarasota at an altitude of 22 miles high.

Soaring into the beautiful blue skies over the Kennedy Space Center, Boe then armed the landing gear. As the trio of wheel struts dropped down, Lindsey pitched the orbiter's nose up as the White Dove inched closer to her runway's center line.

With winds gusting to near 25 m.p.h. down runway 15, Lindsey landed Discovery at a speed of 195 knots at 11:57:17 a.m.

Boe then deployed a drag chute to help slow the historic spacecraft down just second before Lindsey brought the nose down.

The spacecraft's wheels slowed and Discovery's movement under her own power come to a final stop at 11:58:14 a.m.

"Houston, Discovery, for the final time - wheels stopped," the ship's commander exclaimed.

"Discovery, Houston, great job by you and your crew," mission control CAPCOM Charles Hobaugh radioed back. "That was a great landing in tough conditions, and it was an awesome docked mission you all had. You were able to take Discovery up to a full 365 degr... days of actual time on orbit. I think you'd call that a fleet leader and a leader of any manned vehicle for time in orbit. So job well done."

As Discovery stopped on the 9,700-foot point of the runway, the most launched manned spacecraft in world history had completed a total of 5,831 orbits of the earth since her first flight on STS-41D in August 1984.

It was the 76th landing upon the Space Coast by a space shuttle orbiter since 1984.

Discovery's odometer now reads 148,221,675 miles flown during thirty-nine space flights.

Her combined missions during nearly twenty-seven years will have kept her flying a full 365 days in space.

On hand near the runway to cheer and witness the beautiful touchdown were dozens of space center employees, several of the mission's flight directors and NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.

Discovery is expected to spend the year being cleaned up of any toxic fuels, and the removal of unneeded weight located inside the craft.

The plan is for Discovery to be located to her new home in Washington, D.C. and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 2013. There, she will be able to be viewed by the world up close and in person.

Four hours following the landing, Discovery is expected to begin it's three mile journey to the orbiter processing facility bay two, and will be deserviced for the final time.

Discovery's final crew are scheduled to depart the Space Coast for Houston's Ellington Air Field on Thursday morning.

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