Atlantis Departs International Space Station for Final Time

Posted July 19th, 2011 at 2:50 am (UTC-5)
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The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis has undocked from the International Space Station, beginning the last leg of its final voyage — and of the 30-year U.S. space shuttle program.

Atlantis and its four-member crew separated from the ISS early Tuesday morning over New Zealand after an eight-day visit to deliver a year's worth of supplies to the orbital outpost and haul trash and used equipment back to Earth. The shuttle flew one final lap around the space station before maneuvering away for the last time.

The Atlantis crew bid an emotional farewell to the space station crew Monday, exchanging tearful hugs before closing the hatches between the two spacecraft for the last time.

The shuttle crew left behind a model of the space shuttle and a U.S. flag that flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia on the first shuttle mission in 1981.

After 13 days in space — and 26 years of service — Atlantis will end its 33rd and final flight with a Thursday morning landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The U.S. space agency NASA has contracted with four commercial space companies to develop new spacecraft to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS. The new vehicles are still three to five years away from service. Russian Soyuz capsules will handle transport of astronauts for the next few years.