HE LEFT Earth a rookie space-farer and returned less than a fortnight later with a voyage of 5,330,398 miles under his belt. But after becoming only the fourth Briton in orbit, it seems that Dr Nicholas Patrick will also be the last before the shuttle retires.
With his feet back on terra firma yesterday after a 13-day mission that went 204 times round the planet, the father of three was celebrating his new status as one of an elite band of out-of-this-world explorers.
"It's been a fun mission and a successful one," said Dr Patrick, 42, who was yesterday recovering from a dose of the "wobbles" brought on by his 17,000mph plunge through Earth's atmosphere and the effects of returning to gravity.
But the question of how long it will be before another Briton gets to travel into the final frontier remains uncertain, as Nasa plans to retire the shuttle by late 2010 and will not fly manned missions again after that until at least 2014.
The US space agency has only three British-born astronauts on its books. They have flown seven missions between them, and none is lined up for any of the remaining 14 shuttle assignments. The first Briton in space was Helen Sharman, a civilian who joined a Russian mission in 1981.
"If Nick's the last one, it's a shame," said Alex Blackwood, head of the Careers Scotland Space School, which runs education programmes aimed at inspiring young people in science and technology. "You always want to make sure there's a connection between the space programme and Britain in some way."
He added: "It has brought it closer to home having Nick up there. He's someone we can relate to, not just because of being British but because we know him, he's visited us here, spoken to a number of children and helped us to stimulate an interest in science.
"It makes the science of flying in space more real. It's a fantastic asset for us and Space Scotland to have somebody as connected and committed."
Dr Patrick was yesterday due to fly home to Houston, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Dr Rossana Palomino, and their three children aged four, three, and 12 weeks, having landed at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida late on Friday night.
He was checked over by doctors after reporting that he felt light-headed within minutes of landing, and was forced to skip a crew photo-call - instead being helped straight off Discovery and into a waiting vehicle.
Dr Patrick is now preparing to spend Christmas with his family before going into a series of debriefings. He has also been assisting in the development of Nasa's next generation of space vehicles which will take man back to the Moon and ultimately on to Mars.
"Christmas shopping? I think we'll forget that," said his wife. "We'll just have a nice mellow Christmas all together. I'm very eager to hear what he thought about the experience and I'm sure there will be plenty of photographs too."
She added that the children were "very excited" by their father's job. "They think he flies up on the rocket every day," she said.
Discovery has now covered more than 115 million miles in 22 years, making it the furthest travelled of the existing shuttle fleet. Its latest flight allowed Nasa to deliver a new wing of the space station along with fresh equipment including external cameras, a shield to protect the station against micro-meteorites, a new oxygen pump and a carbon dioxide removal system.
The mission was one of Nasa's most complex to date, with each astronaut's working day scheduled down to literally every last minute, leaving little time for recreation.
Dr Patrick's father Stewart said: "One thing that stuck out was how busy they've been. I had three e-mails from Nick while he was up there and they were very short. If I expected anything, it was lots of 'Wow' and wonder and talk of the marvellous views and the sense of weightlessness, but he was working so hard.
"I would hope that he won't be the last Briton in space. It was in England, after all, that the father of rocket propulsion, Robert Goddard, was born, so it has a certain reputation to live up to."