The crew of Atlantis on Tuesday bade a bittersweet farewell to the International Space Station, wrapping up the final visit by a space shuttle to the orbiting outpost.
With a spectacular orbital sunrise illuminating a shuttle in the sunset of its career, Atlantis inched away from the ISS at 0628 GMT about 350 kilometers (217 miles) above the Pacific Ocean to begin its final return to Earth, closing the book on the storied relationship between the two iconic spacecraft.
“Thanks so much for hosting us. It’s a great station, and it’s been an absolute pleasure,” Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said of his crew’s eight-day stay at the ISS.
“We’ll miss you guys. Godspeed, soft landing and we’ll see you back on Earth in the fall,” space station crewmember Ronald Garan, a NASA flight engineer, said as Atlantis floated away.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” said Ferguson of the final shuttle mission.
“We will never forget the role that the space shuttle played in (the station’s) creation,” he said. “Farewell ISS, make us proud.”
As Atlantis began its final homecoming, NASA engineers at Mission Control in Houston, Texas were reverently quiet, according to an announcer on NASA TV, who said the flight control team was “in awe of the moment.”
As the shuttle age drew to a close after 37 dramatic rendezvous with the ISS, their crews held a moving ceremony Monday, exchanging embraces and kisses before shutting the hatches separating them for a final time.
Astronauts then placed an American flag that flew on the very first shuttle mission in 1981 on the passageway separating the shuttle and the space station, in a poignant gesture to symbolize the end of one era of US spaceflight and the dawn of a new one.
“When this flag returns again someday to Earth by astronauts that came up on an American spacecraft, its journey will not end there,” said Ferguson.
“Its journey will continue, it will leave low-Earth orbit once again, perhaps to a lunar destination — perhaps to Mars,” he said.
Atlantis blasted off July 8 with a four-member crew, lugging the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module and several tons of supplies to the ISS to help sustain the outpost in the post-shuttle era.
The shuttle is scheduled for a predawn touch-down Thursday at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
After undocking, the shuttle gradually pulled back to a distance of 182 meters (600 feet).
Then the ISS shifted 90 degrees to allow Atlantis to face the station’s longitudinal axis, so that the shuttle could conduct a flyby to document modules and equipment that other missions have not had a view of.
As the shuttle fired its jets for final separation, NASA flight director Dan Tani at Mission Control praised the work of “the magnificent machines that delivered, assembled and staffed our world class laboratory in space.”
With the conclusion of America’s vaunted shuttle program, astronauts will rely on Russian Soyuz rockets for rides to the ISS until a new US space craft — a commercial launcher and capsule built by a private corporation in partnership with NASA — is ready to fly sometime around 2015.
NASA said Monday it had reached agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA) — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — to try to adopt the Atlas V commercial rocket to send astronauts to the ISS.
The end of the shuttle program means that chances for astronauts to do the one thing they are trained for will become much rarer.
“Of course it’s hard, because we dedicate our lives to fly in space. We are astronauts and it’s what we do for a living,” astronaut Steve Robinson, a veteran of four shuttle missions, told AFP this month.
Over the course of the three-decade-long program, five NASA shuttles — Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour — have comprised a fleet designed as the world’s first reusable space vehicles.
Only three have survived after Columbia and Challenger were destroyed in accidents that killed their crews.
At a time of US budget austerity, President Barack Obama has opted to end the program that has averaged about $450 million for each of the 135 missions over the years.
Obama also canceled Constellation, a project that aimed to put US astronauts back on the Moon by 2020 at a cost of $97 billion.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden recently told US lawmakers that there would be opportunities in commercial space flight in the near future.
“We are not abandoning the human space flight. We have a big job to do of operating the ISS for the next nine years at least.”