After traveling more than 6.2 million miles in just over 15 days, the space shuttle Discovery glided back to Earth this morning, touching down at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 9:08 a.m. local time.
—Photo courtesy NASA/Bill Ingalls
The mission, known as STS-131 among NASA folk, marks the second of the “final five” launches of the space shuttle program.
Space shuttle Atlantis is already set to roll onto a Kennedy launch pad at 6 p.m. ET today in preparation for STS-132, slated to launch on May 14.
If everything goes according to plan, this will be Atlantis’s last jaunt into orbit. The shuttle Endeavour will then have its swan song in July.
Discovery will have the distinction of being the final shuttle to fly this September, marking the end of U.S.-led manned missions into space for the foreseeable future—unless supporters find funding for NASA to keep the remaining three shuttles operational a bit longer.
To commemorate this historic flight, check out a selection of the more unusual photos from Discovery’s next-to-last mission:
A time-lapse picture shows the space shuttle’s path into orbit following launch at 6:21 ET on April 5. Photo courtesy NASA/Ben Cooper
Color My World
The April 5 shuttle launch painted a colorful squiggle in the sky as sunrise lit the shuttle’s contrails, seen here above the launch control center at Kennedy. Photo courtesy NASA/Bill Ingalls
After docking with the International Space Station on April 7, Discovery seems to hang off the orbiting observatory. Here, the station’s robotic arm reaches out to pull the Leonardo multipurpose logistics module from the shuttle’s payload bay.
The Nose Knows
From a different angle, Discovery’s nose greets an astronaut during the second spacewalk of the mission on April 11.
Astronaut Clayton Anderson appears upside-down in a floating blob of water as he relaxes on Discovery’s middeck on April 12.
On April 17 Discovery flew with its payload bay facing Earth so that astronauts aboard the ISS could check its undersides for damage following separation of the two spacecraft.
—All photos courtesy NASA unless otherwise noted