Space shuttle Discovery sets off for final flight


After three decades of space service, Discovery, Nasa's oldest and most travelled shuttle began its new life as a museum relic today with one final takeoff.

Discovery departed Florida's Kennedy Space Centre aboard a modified jumbo jet bound for Washington, where it will become a Smithsonian exhibit.

Nearly 2,000 people - former shuttle workers, VIPs, tourists and journalists - gathered along the old shuttle landing strip to see Discovery off. A cheer went up as the plane taxied down the runway and took off into a clear sky.

The plane and shuttle headed south and made one last flight over the beaches of Cape Canaveral - thousands jammed the shore for a glimpse of Discovery - then returned to the space centre in a final salute. Cheers erupted once more as the pair came in low over the runway it had left 20 minutes earlier and finally turned toward the north.

Discovery - the fleet leader with 39 space missions - is the first of the three retired space shuttles to head to a museum. It will go on display at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, taking the place of the shuttle prototype Enterprise. The Enterprise will go to New York City.

Endeavour will head to Los Angeles this autumn. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy.

Nasa ended the shuttle programme last summer after a 30-year run to focus on destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Private US companies hope to pick up the slack, beginning with space station cargo and then, hopefully, astronauts. The first commercial cargo run, by Space Exploration Technologies, is set to take place in just another few weeks.