July 19, 2011

Atlantis Begins Journey Home For The Last Time

The last flight of the US space shuttle program turned towards home early this morning when Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson and pilot Doug Hurley pulled away from the International Space Station (ISS) as they orbited about 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean, Reuters is reporting.

Undocking was sounded, as tradition dictates, by a bell being rung out on the station, and speeches from Ferguson and Ron Garan, the lead NASA resident on the outpost.

"Atlantis departing the International Space Station for the last time," Garan called out. "Thank you for your 12 docked missions to the ISS, and for capping off 37 space shuttle missions to construct this incredible orbiting research facility."

Ferguson and his crew leave behind two souvenirs, a model of the space shuttle and a small US flag which first flew aboard Columbia on its STS-1 mission back in April 1981, The Register reports.

Atlantis was moved to a point about 600 feet off the bow of the orbiting station, which then swung about 90 degrees using thrusters on its Russian stern to take photographs along its truss, or backbone, and of the ends of some of the modules, BBC News reports.

This imagery will help engineers on the ground to understand better how the various elements that make up the ISS are coping in the harsh environment of space. These photos will enable engineers on the ground to understand better how the various elements that make up the ISS are coping in the harsh environment of space.

The 37th mission of Atlantis found the shuttle in orbit for almost 9 days at the science outpost and left behind a year's worth of supplies, insurance in the event commercial providers encounter delays in launching their own cargo ships.

All told, NASA's shuttles spent 276 days, nearly 40 weeks, docked to the station which is now a sprawling complex with multiple science labs "” 13 rooms in all and more than 900,000 pounds of mass, most of that delivered by US space shuttles.

Mission Control communicator Daniel Tani, a former station resident, revealed to the Associated Press that the station is, "So large that some astronauts have even momentarily gotten lost in it "” you can take it from me. Of course, the ISS wouldn't be here without the space shuttle so ... we wanted to say thank you and farewell to the magnificent machines that delivered, assembled and staffed our world-class laboratory in space."

The Thursday return to Earth will conclude the 30-year-old US space shuttle program, with no replacement US spaceships ready to fly.

Two private firms, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp., are working with NASA to service the station beginning next year. Russia, Europe and Japan also fly resupply flights to the station.

Russian Soyuz capsules will be the interim flight platform for the ISS allowing US astronauts to ride into orbit at a cost of more than $50 million per person, until and unless US companies are able to offer similar transportation services.

Several firms, including Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies and Sierra Nevada Corp. are developing passenger spaceships, but none are expected to be ready until at least 2015.

The final mission for the Atlantis shuttle will be to rest on public display at the Kennedy Space Center visitor's complex.


Image Caption: Space shuttle Atlantis is seen from the International Space Station shortly after undocking. Photo credit: NASA TV


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