In a photo made from NASA television the Space Shuttle Discovery is 216 miles above the Sahara Desert after separating from the International Space Station Monday March 7, 2011. The Discovery is scheduled to land Wednesday as it completes its final mission. (AP PHoto/NASA)
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Astronauts salute Discovery on eve of last landing

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - On the eve of Discovery's final homecoming, the six shuttleastronauts paid tribute Tuesday to the world's most traveledspaceship, saying it may be some time before there's another vesselthat's worthy of the name and capable of venturing farther.

Discovery is on the verge of ending its nearly 27-year flyingcareer. Landing is set for Wednesday. NASA will spend severalmonths decommissioning Discovery, then send it to the SmithsonianInstitution.

All of NASA's space shuttles were named after great ships ofexploration, the astronauts said as Discovery's last spaceflightdrew to a close. There was Henry Hudson's Discovery in the 1600sthat explored the northeastern United States and James Cook's inthe 1700s that encountered the Hawaiian Islands.

"This Discovery has done that with flying colors," spacemanMichael Barratt told The Associated Press. "She retires with all ofthe honors and dignity due any of those ships that made greatdiscoveries.

"So I think we salute Discovery in that way, with all theaccolades that she deserves. But it also lays out a challenge. Whatwill be the next ship named Discovery? The next ship to bear thisname hopefully will go farther than this one and make every bit asmuch of a contribution to history and to discovery as thisship."

Astronaut Alvin Drew said he doesn't know if the country willhave the audacity to build something as ambitious as the spaceshuttle, which dates back to the 1970s. Thirty-nine missions in noteven 27 years is pretty amazing, added crewmate Stephen Bowen.

Commander Steven Lindsey noted that his entire crew was sad themission was drawing to a close. "Wish we could have a few moredays, but it's time for us to come home," he said. "Once we land,then we'll all have time to really reflect on what we did."

Former astronaut Michael Coats, who piloted Discovery's maidenjourney in 1984, recalled Tuesday how the main engines fired andthen shut down in the first launch abort of the shuttle program.The crew members and families ended up at Walt Disney World, hesaid with a chuckle. The shuttle lifted off two months later.

All of Coats' three spaceflights were aboard Discovery. "I'lltell you, it makes you feel old when you realize you flew the firstflight of a spaceship that's about to go into a museum," saidCoats, now director of Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In honor of Discovery's final flight, the astronauts receivedthe first live wake-up music in the history of the shuttle program,a tune written in honor of the spaceship.

The lead guitarist of Big Head Todd and the Monsters performed asolo version of "Blue Sky." The group wrote the song at the requestof the 2005 crew of Discovery, which returned NASA to orbitfollowing the Columbia tragedy. The song was the top vote-getter inNASA's contest to mark the end of the shuttle program, just a fewmonths away with only two missions remaining.

Lindsey didn't realize the acoustic performance was live untilTodd Park Mohr radioed greetings.

"Did you just do that live?" Lindsey asked.

"I did just do that live, and I believe it's a first inhistory," replied Mohr. "On behalf of Big Head Todd and theMonsters, and songwriters and artists everywhere, we just want tothank you so much for your courage and your bravery and your effortin just giving all of us a better shot at knowing more."

Lindsey said he and his five crewmates wish everyone could seewhat astronauts see when they look down at Earth. "Hopefully soonerthan later," he said.

On Monday, Mission Control beamed up a prerecorded message byactor William Shatner of 1960s "Star Trek" fame, in honor ofDiscovery's final mission. "Theme from Star Trek" was the musiccontest runner-up.

Discovery departed from the International Space Station onMonday, leaving behind a newly installed storage compartment andequipment platform, as well as the first humanoid robot in space.The shuttle will wrap up its 13-day mission with a noontimetouchdown Wednesday, weather permitting. Good weather isforecast.

Discovery is the first of NASA's three shuttles to be retired.Many at NASA contend the fleet still has lots of flying lifetimeleft. But the space agency is under presidential direction to aimfor true outer space, like asteroids and Mars. That means giving upthe shuttles, which are confined to orbit.

Two shuttle launches remain: Endeavour next month and Atlantisat the end of June.

Deputy shuttle program manager LeRoy Cain said the team's mantraover the past several years has been to "finish strong." Discoveryaccomplished that, he noted, flying the cleanest, best-performingmission in memory.

The public had one last chance to see Discovery soaringoverhead, just after sunset Tuesday. It was going to be visibleover much of the United States, weather permitting, resembling abright fast-moving star.

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Online:

NASA:http://www.nasa.gov/mission-pages/shuttle/main/index.html

NASA sighting opportunities:http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/index.html

Copyright Copyright Associated Press

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