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.
NASA's oldest shuttle swooped through a mostly clear noontime sky to an on-time touchdown at its home base.
"To the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say, 'Farewell Discovery,'" Mission Control commentator Josh Byerly declared.
Florida's spaceport was packed with shuttle program workers, journalists and even some schoolchildren eager to see history in the making.
The six astronauts on board went through their landing checklists with the sad realization that no one would ever ride Discovery again. They said during their 13-day space station delivery mission that they expected that to hit them hard when the shuttle came to a stop on the runway.
At three minutes before noon ET, Discovery landed and ceased being a reusable rocketship.
"And Houston, Discovery. For the final time, wheels stop," Discovery's commander Steven Lindsey called out when the shuttle rolled to a halt. He was the last member of the crew to climb out of the ship.
After his final walkaround as a space shuttle skipper, Lindsey said the sense of finality was sinking in. "As the minutes pass, I'm actually getting sadder and sadder about this being the last flight," he told reporters.
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 (238 million kilometers), 5,830 orbits of Earth and 365 days spent in space. All that was achieved in less than 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 before Discovery is ready to head to the Smithsonian Institution. The main engines will have to be removed, and all the hazardous materials will have to be taken out. Discovery will make its last 750-mile (1,200-kilometer) journey as an inert artifact, strapped to the top of a jumbo jet.
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Throughout the final spaceflight, 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."
"A dream machine," Lindsey's co-pilot, Eric Boe, observed on the eve of landing.
Discovery's last mission ended up being flawless, despite a four-month grounding for fuel tank repairs. After the landing, Lindsey said he marveled at the fact that the spaceship came back to Earth in seemingly perfect condition. "I have never seen an airplane able to do that," he 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 and 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 International 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. Then he added, "We've got two more to fly."
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander, led the welcoming party for Discovery. In a statement issued after landing, he praised the shuttle and the program behind it.
"Discovery is an amazing spacecraft and she has served her country well," Bolden said in the statement. "The success of this mission and those that came before it is a testament to the diligence and determination of everyone who has worked on Discovery and the space shuttle program over these many years. As we celebrate the many accomplishments of this magnificent ship, we look forward to an exciting new era of human spaceflight that lies ahead."
On the runway, Bolden told reporters that Discovery had "a very special place" in his heart because he rode it into orbit for two of his four shuttle missions, including his last trip into space in 1994.
"This is very bittersweet for all of us," he said.
Bolden is due to announce the final homes for Endeavour and Atlantis on April 12 — 30 years to the day since Columbia soared on the first shuttle flight. He may also reveal whether the test shuttle Enterprise, which is currently on display at the Smithsonian, will be moved to a new venue to make way for Discovery.
NASA planned to move Endeavour out to the launch pad Wednesday night for its April 19 liftoff, but delayed the move until Thursday because bad weather was expected. The mission, which is due to deliver the $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station, will be commanded by the husband of wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Mark Kelly.
Kelly's identical twin brother, Scott, is currently the skipper of the space station; he returns to Earth next week on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Atlantis is slated to deliver a huge batch of supplies to the space station at the end of June, marking the last mission of the shuttle program.
NASA is under presidential direction to spread its wings beyond low-Earth orbit. The goal is to send astronauts to an asteroid and then Mars in the decades ahead. There is not enough money for NASA to achieve that and maintain the shuttle program at the same time. As a result, the shuttles will stop flying this summer after 30 years.
American astronauts will keep hitching rides to the space station on Russian capsules, until private companies are able to provide taxi service to and from orbit. NASA expects to get another nine years at least out of the space station.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.
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