NASA/Frank Michaux
Space shuttle Discovery stands tall at Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
By Managing editor
updated 2/24/2011 3:15:07 PM ET 2011-02-24T20:15:07

NASA's space shuttle Discovery may be hanging up its wings after one last mission, but it will leave a long legacy of performance in orbit that will be a challenge for any future spacecraft to match.

Discovery is NASA's oldest flying space shuttle and the most traveled winged spaceship in the fleet. It has flown more missions, and carried more astronaut crewmembers, than any of NASA's other shuttles, agency officials have said.

The shuttle is flying its final mission – STS-133 – before being retired along with the rest of NASA's orbiters later this year. The 11-day mission launches Thursday and will deliver a new storage room and humanoid robot to the International Space Station. [Gallery: Building Space Shuttle Discovery]

"Discovery has been a really remarkable vehicle for us and the program," NASA test director Jeff Spaulding told reporters this week. "She still has a few more miles to go before she sleeps, though."

Here's a by-the-numbers look at Discovery's lasting legacy in space that, according to NASA, will cement the shuttle's place in the fleet's record books:

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143 million: The number of miles Discovery has traveled so far, with one flight remaining. This is a distance record unmatched among NASA's space shuttle fleet. The miles traveled by Discovery could have carried it to the moon and back 288 times, or on 1.5 trips to the sun.

40,000: The number of spectators NASA reportedly anticipated to have watching Discovery's final launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

17,400: The speed at which Discovery travels (in miles per hour) to remain in orbit. It's about Mach 25, or five times the speed of a bullet.

5,628: The number of orbits Discovery has flown around Earth. During spaceflight, Discovery completes one orbit around Earth every 90 minutes.

1984: The year Discovery blasted off on its maiden space voyage. Discovery's first flight was NASA's STS-41D mission, which launched on Aug. 30 carrying three communications satellites and an experimental solar array wing. The mission was commanded by astronaut Henry Hartsfield.

363: The number of cumulative days Discovery will have flown in space by the end of its career. Altogether, that's just over 51 weeks. Put another way, if you were to string all of Discovery's mission's together into one mission, the shuttle would be in space for almost an entire year.

246: The number of crew members Discovery has carried during its space career so far. According to NASA, Discovery has been the ultimate space taxi and carried the most astronauts of any shuttle.

39: The number of missions Discovery will have flown by the time it is retired.

13: The number of times Discovery will have docked with the International Space Station after it is retired.

5: The number of astronauts that marked a first-ever in space when they flew on Discovery. According to NASA, they include: the first female to ever pilot a spacecraft (former astronaut Eileen Collins); the oldest person to fly in space (former astronaut John Glenn); the first African-American to perform a spacewalk (former astronaut Bernard Harris); the first cosmonaut to fly on an American spacecraft (Russian spaceflier Sergei Krikalev); and the first sitting member of Congress to fly in space (then-Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah).

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4: The number of years it took to build the space shuttle Discovery. The shuttle was completed in October 1983 in Palmdale, Calif., and was shipped a month later to NASA piggyback atop the agency's modified Boeing 747 shuttle carrier craft. Four is also the maximum number of times the shuttle has flown in space in a single year. In 1985, Discovery set the bar for number of flights by one orbiter in one year.

3: The number of satellites Discovery carried during its first launch. Discovery was also NASA's third space shuttle built for orbital flight. It was built after the shuttles Columbia and Challenger.

2: The number of return-to-flight missions Discovery has flown to help NASA resume shuttle flights. Discovery was the shuttle that flew the STS-26 mission two years after the loss of shuttle Challenger and its crew during launch on Jan. 28, 1986. The shuttle also flew the STS-114 mission that followed the 2003 loss of shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew. That mission launched in July 2005.

1: The number of actual dockings with Russia's Mir space station Mir. Discovery visited the Mir station twice. It was the first U.S. shuttle to rendezvous with (but not dock at) Mir in 1995. Its second and last trip to Mir was in 1998, when it actually linked up with the Russian space station.

You can follow Space.com managing editor Tariq Malik on Twitter@tariqjmalik. Staff writer Denise Chow ( @denisechow ) is providing mission coverage of Discovery's final space voyage from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Timeline: Space shuttle timeline

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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