Image: Space Shuttle Atlantis and the ISS
With Earth and space in the background, the shuttle Atlantis (left) pulls away from its port on the International Space Station (right). staff and news service reports
updated 5/23/2010 12:04:11 PM ET 2010-05-23T16:04:11

The space shuttle Atlantis made its last scheduled departure from the International Space Station on Sunday.

Leading up to the undocking, the crews of the two spaceships shared hugs and laughs. "Take care," the International Space Station's skipper, Oleg Kotov, told his shuttle visitors.

"We'll see you all on the surface of planet Earth again soon," shuttle commander Kenneth Ham replied. The two commanding officers shook hands twice and laughed heartily, then embraced. Their crewmates — representing the United States, Russia and Japan — followed suit.

Aboard the space station, NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson rang a bell as Atlantis pulled away, in accordance with naval tradition. "Space shuttle Atlantis departing," she declared.

Earlier in the morning, Ham told reporters the two crews had fun. He said all 12 spacefliers bonded through hard work and worked as a single team.

The space station is bigger, thanks to Atlantis and its crew. They're leaving behind a new Russian compartment packed with supplies, as well as six freshly charged batteries and other equipment that was hooked up during a series of spacewalks.

Its total mass exceeds 816,000 pounds (371,000 kilograms), and it's 98 percent complete in terms of living space.

"This place is now a palace. It's huge, and I've had great fun exploring it," said shuttle astronaut Piers Sellers. "We're seeing station in pretty much its final form, and it's really magnificent."

Atlantis is due to return to Earth on Wednesday. Just two shuttle missions remain to wrap up NASA's share of construction. Discovery is scheduled to fly in September, followed by Endeavour in November.

Atlantis' swan song ... or maybe not
As it currently stands, once Atlantis lands, it will never fly in space again.

NASA and some politicians are pushing hard for another mission, however, so Atlantis can haul up a final load of supplies in June 2011. The White House — which wants NASA concentrated on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars in the coming decades — would need to approve any extra flights.

Image: International Space Station
The International Space Station floats above Earth in a picture captured by the shuttle Atlantis' crew during a farewell flyaround.
Already, NASA is going through the list of museums interested in Atlantis and Endeavour. Discovery is promised to the Smithsonian Institution.

On Sunday morning, a journalist asked the Atlantis astronauts where they would like to see their ship wind up. Pilot, Dominic "Tony" Antonelli pointed out that none of them gets to decide. But if he got to pick, Atlantis would retire to his back yard in Houston.

"I get plenty of letters from my home owners' association about leaving my garbage can out and not keeping my grass trimmed, but if I got Atlantis parked in my back yard, that would make all those letters just kind of disappear," Antonelli said with a smile.

Inspection on the agenda
As for Atlantis' more immediate future, the astronauts still need to survey its wings and nose in search of any damage. They'll perform the job Monday using the newly repaired inspection boom. A spacewalking crewman untangled a cable on the boom last week, allowing the TV camera on the end to tilt properly.

Over at the space station, meanwhile, three of the six residents soon will be checking out. Russia's Kotov, NASA's Timothy (TJ) Creamer and Japan's Soichi Noguchi will depart June 2 in a Soyuz capsule and aim for Kazakhstan.

After more than five months in orbit, Creamer said Sunday he can't wait to drink something without sipping through a straw and to eat food that stays on the plate. Noguchi yearns for a hot springs bath.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and

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