Atlantis Departs International Space Station for Final Time

Posted July 19th, 2011 at 2:50 pm (UTC-5)
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The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis is on its way home after undocking from the International Space Station, beginning the last leg of its final voyage — and of the 30-year U.S. shuttle program.

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

Flight commander Chris Ferguson thanked the space station residents for their hospitality, and said the astronauts will never forget the role the space shuttle played in the creation of the ISS. He added that like a proud parent, they anticipate great things to follow.

He told Mission Control that it has been an “incredible ride.”

As a final salute, the crew of the space station rotated 90 degrees to allow shuttle astronauts to record images of the ISS at never-before-seen angles.

After leaving, the Atlantis crew performed inspections of the shuttle's thermal protection unit to ensure that areas that experience the highest heating during reentry are intact.

LeRoy Cain, the head of the mission management team, said the weather forecast looks good for a Thursday landing in Florida. He indicated no problems with the shuttle, saying the spacecraft's performance throughout the mission has been “outstanding.”

Atlantis is to end its 33rd and final flight with a Thursday morning landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 13-day mission capped off the shuttle's 26 years in service.

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

The Atlantis astronauts 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.

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.