Five men, one woman and a gold-faced robot with a resemblance to the Star Wars character C3PO blasted into space yesterday, as the world's oldest, most-travelled space shuttle headed into orbit one last time.

After 240 million km and a combined total of almost 50 weeks of boldly going, the 26-year-old Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida on its 39th and final mission.

The start of the 11-day trip to the International Space Station was accompanied by all the usual bells and whistles of a major Nasa launch, from a flag-waving crowd of 40,000 guests, to endless press conferences from the organisation's most senior boffins.

But amid the pageantry, there was a hint of sadness - Discovery's last hurrah does not mark only the retirement of a craft known to US astronauts as "the champion of the fleet", it also hastens the demise of the shuttle as a means of extra-terrestrial transportation.

The era-defining brand of spacecraft, which was given the go-ahead by Nixon, entered space under Reagan, and went on to outlast the Cold War, is to be shuffled off into retirement this year, with the loss of around 7000 jobs.

It is the victim of big budget cuts at Nasa, combined with doubts about safety which stretch back to the Challenger disaster of 1986, and became serious after February 1, 2003, when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.

Launch director Mike Leinbach said it was tough to see Discovery go.

"You'll see a lot of people on the runway who will probably choke up some," he said.

"It's the end of a 30-year programme we've grown to love and appreciate and feel like we're doing something special for the country and, really, the world."

Once Discovery returns, Nasa will prepare for April's scheduled final journey of Endeavour, the shuttle, which will have in its crew Mark Kelly, the 47-year-old husband of Arizona gun-rage victim Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Then, provided it can afford it, Nasa will formally end the era of the space shuttle on June 28, when Atlantis begins a 12-day mission to the International Space Station.

After that, America will find itself in the embarrassing position of having to cadge lifts for astronauts in Russian craft.

Nasa's long-term plans, such as they are, involve private companies providing orbital transport.

Amid such uncertainty, the demise of Discovery is a particularly sad moment. It has always been the most loved and trusted of Nasa's fleet. It was chosen for Nasa's symbolically important first missions after the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

This week's final flight has been arranged to ferry 1590kg of supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station, most notably a humanoid robot named "Robonaut 2", which has a gold face and stands a little over 1m tall. The robot will work alongside human inhabitants of the station.

At first, it will carry out mundane tasks, such as cleaning.

But engineers hope it will eventually take over more dangerous and complex duties, including space walks.

Though conceived, in the 1970s, as a cheaper alternative to rockets - they could complete multiple missions, while each rocket could fly only once - shuttles proved far less reliable and more costly than expected.

Shuttle programme architects envisioned that American astronauts would fly a mission a week, launching satellites and defence systems, and building vast space stations.

But Nasa never managed more than nine or 10 shuttle flights a year. Thousands of highly trained engineers were needed to maintain each craft in the fleet, at vast expense. Then there were the two disasters, in which 14 perished.

Discovery's future probably now lies as a museum piece - it is likely to be donated to the national Smithsonian museum in Washington.

Frontier pioneer
August 1984: Discovery is launched on its maiden voyage to deploy three communications satellites.

April 1990:The Hubble Space Telescope is carried and launched into orbit by Discovery.

February 1994: Discovery becomes the first American space shuttle to host a Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev.

February 1995: The shuttle becomes the first American spacecraft to dock with the Russian space station Mir. This mission also sees Eileen Collins become the first female space shuttle pilot.