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The space shuttle Discovery docked at the International Space Station on Saturday for a final time, NASA said, as the American spacecraft embarks on its last mission in orbit before retirement. The docking took place at 2:14 pm as the orbiting space lab was 220 miles (350 kilometers) over western Australia, mission control said. The shuttle, which blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center here on Thursday is on a 11-day mission, which includes two spacewalks. This is its final odyssey into orbit, carrying a new module and a robot. “It has been a pretty tremendous day in space flight for us,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations.
The end of the shuttle program will create a gaping hole in the US space program during a period of belt-tightening and budget freezes, and will leave Russia’s space capsules as the sole transit option to the ISS. “Bittersweet” was the word of the day at Kennedy Space Center as astronauts, engineers and space fans crowded in to get a glimpse of history by watching Discovery’s crowning launch 27 years after it first flew into space. “There is no doubt the space shuttle is an engineering marvel,” said NASA chief technologist Bob Braun. “But it is an older vehicle. It is 30 years old; it was designed probably a decade before that,” he said. “I think we all recognize we need to go to the next chapter. But any time you go to that next chapter, it is bittersweet.” The Discovery crew plans to deliver the Permanent Multipurpose Module, with extra storage space and an area for experiments, as well as some spare parts and the Express Logistic Carrier, an external platform for large equipment. The shuttle is also bringing the first humanoid robot to the ISS. The Robonaut 2, or R2, is a joint project of General Motors and NASA and will stay behind as a permanent resident of the space station when Discovery leaves.