Image: Atlantis
NASA TV via AP
In this image from NASA TV, Space Shuttle Atlantis is seen just moments after separation from the International Space Station.
updated 9/17/2006 1:48:30 PM ET 2006-09-17T17:48:30

With hugs, handshakes and the traditional ringing of a bell, residents of the international space station bade farewell early Sunday to the crew of the Atlantis, who leave the station much different from how they found it six days ago.

“The crew of Atlantis departing,” station resident Jeff Williams radioed to Mission Control in Houston. The hatch between the two space craft was closed at 6:27 a.m. EDT.

Now back in their space shuttle, the Atlantis crew are preparing to undock from the station after a hectic but successful mission.

In three arduous spacewalks with the blue-green Earth as a backdrop, the crew unpacked and installed a 17½-ton pair of solar wings that will ultimately generate a quarter of the space station’s power.

The wings are the first addition to the orbiting space lab since the 2003 Columbia disaster. NASA will affix two more solar wings on the space station before it is completed in 2010.

'A bittersweet day'
The crew woke up to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” Pilot Chris Ferguson, whose family requested the song for him, told Mission Control in Houston: “That’s great music for ... what will be a bittersweet day for us today, undocking from the station.”

The six-member Atlantis team will get a chance to circle around the space station, check out its overall condition and admire their handiwork after they undock at about 8:50 a.m. EDT.

The crew spent the earlier part of their day hauling supplies and equipment from their spacecraft to the station, and getting ready for the undocking and fly-around.

Atlantis returns to Earth Wednesday morning after 11 days in space. The next space station mission dedicated to construction is slated to leave Earth in December.

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