NASA TV
Space shuttle Discovery is seen in cameras as it flies around the International Space Station after undocking for the final time on March 7, 2011 during its last mission, STS-133.
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updated 3/7/2011 4:06:14 PM ET 2011-03-07T21:06:14

Its decades-long mission accomplished, space shuttle Discovery headed home to retirement after undocking from the International Space Station on Monday for the last time.

The world's most-flown spaceship got a dramatic send-off from Capt. Kirk, the skipper of the original "Star Trek."

"Space, the final frontier," actor William Shatner proclaimed in a pre-recorded tribute. "These have been the voyages of the space shuttle Discovery. Her 30-year mission: to seek out new science, to build new outposts, to bring nations together on the final frontier, to boldly go and do what no spacecraft has done before."

On the final leg of its final journey — due to culminate with a Wednesday touchdown — Discovery performed a victory lap around the space station immediately after undocking. The shuttle and station crews beamed down pictures of each other's vessel, with the blue cloud-specked planet 220 miles (350 kilometers) below as the stunning backdrop.

NASA TV showed live footage of Discovery as it soared over the Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara Desert, and in a matter of a few minutes, over the Mediterranean Sea and northern Italy. The breathtaking shots were captured by the space station crew.

"It looks beautiful," observed Scott Kelly, the space station's skipper. He wished the six shuttle passengers a safe ride home.

To ensure safe passage, the shuttle astronauts pulled out their 100-foot (30-meter), laser-tipped inspection boom and checked their ship for any signs of micrometeorite damage. The safety procedure was put in place following the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Discovery is being sent to the Smithsonian Institution for display after it undergoes several months of decommissioning. NASA's two other shuttles will join Discovery in retirement, following their upcoming missions.

The oldest of NASA's surviving shuttles, Discovery will have racked up nearly 150 million miles by trip's end, accumulated more than 39 missions in nearly 27 years and spent 365 days total in space. It flew to the International Space Station 13 times and made the first shuttle rendezvous with Russia's Mir station in 1995.

Discovery first flew in 1984 and carried the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit six years later. It's flown 184 astronauts, including John Glenn at age 77 in 1998.

Music to fly by
Shatner's message was played for the shuttle crew Monday morning, just a few hours before the undocking. His words were followed by the wake-up music, "Theme from Star Trek." It was the runner-up in a contest sponsored by NASA to mark the end of the shuttle program. The No. 1 vote-getter — "Blue Sky" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters — will be beamed up as Tuesday's wake-up tune.

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Mission Control and Discovery's astronauts also paid homage to lead shuttle flight director Bryan Lunney, who is quitting NASA as the program draws to a close. His voice cracked as he bid farewell, and he received a standing ovation in the control room.

"It's been a hoot," Lunney told the astronauts. "Couldn't have had a better choice for my last flight."

Shuttle commander Steven Lindsey said he'd rather be celebrating with Lunney than inspecting his ship.

Lunney was joined earlier in Mission Control by his father, legendary Apollo flight director Glynn Lunney. The younger Lunney is leaving NASA later this month after 22 years and nearly 50 shuttle flights to join a pair of aerospace research companies.

Farewell from Robonaut
During their 13-day flight, Lindsey and his crew delivered a new storage compartment, as well as an equipment platform and the first humanoid robot in space called R2, which is short for Robonaut 2. Both large items were successfully installed, but R2 will be unpacked by the station crew in the coming weeks.

"If I were unpacked, I would wave goodbye!" R2 said in a Twitter message that was posted by a human on the ground.

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The addition of the 21-foot-long, 15-foot wide (6.5-by-4.5-meter) storage compartment left the space station 97 percent complete. The complex now has a mass of nearly 1 million pounds.

Kenneth Todd, a space station manager, described the completed mission as "above and beyond." He said it was bittersweet to see Discovery for the last time in orbit. "We bid her adieu and certainly godspeed to Steve and the rest of the crew on the way home."

On the next shuttle flight, by Endeavour next month, a $2 billion physics experiment will be installed on the outside of the space station. Atlantis will blast off with supplies on the final shuttle mission at the end of June.

NASA is under presidential direction to focus more on outer space, beginning with expeditions to asteroids and then Mars.

American astronauts will continue hitching rides to the space station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at great expense. The intent is for private U.S. companies to take over those ferry operations within a few years.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 'Star Trek' captain pays tribute to Discovery

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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