AP
The Expedition 28 crew and the STS-135 Atlantis astronauts formed a microgravity circle for a portrait on Friday in this image provided by NASA. The STS-135 crew is made up of NASA astronauts Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim; the Expedition 28 crew members are JAXA astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, NASA astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, and Russian cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Sergei Volkov.
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updated 7/18/2011 12:58:59 PM ET 2011-07-18T16:58:59

The astronauts on NASA's final shuttle voyage floated out of the International Space Station for the last time Monday, leaving behind a historic U.S. flag and a commemorative shuttle model to mark the end of a 30-year era.

Atlantis was set to undock from the orbiting lab early Tuesday — providing the last glimpses of a space shuttle in flight before the fleet is retired.

As the hatches swung shut behind the four crew members of Atlantis, it closed "a chapter in the history of our nation," space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. noted in Monday's emotional farewell ceremony.

He attached the small flag — which rocketed into orbit on the very first shuttle flight in 1981 — to the door of the space station hatch before the shuttle astronauts departed. Atlantis has been parked at the space station for more than a week, unloading a year's worth of supplies and packing up trash and old equipment for the trip home.

Atlantis is due to land at Florida's Kennedy Space Center just before sunrise Thursday.

It was a heartfelt goodbye for the two crews, numbering 10 astronauts in all from three countries. They embraced one another. Sandra Magnus wiped away tears.

Atlantis' commander, Christopher Ferguson, presented the flag to the space station crew, along with a small model of a space shuttle. He said he wishes he could have brought a monument to commemorate the 30-year shuttle program, but it would not have fit.

"We brought the best monument we could possibly find, and that's a space shuttle model," he said.

The model, signed by senior shuttle managers and flight directors, was also was hung near the hatch.

AP
In this July 14 photo provided by NASA, aurora australis, or the southern lights, light up the Earth's horizon as seen from the International Space Station, looking past the docked space shuttle Atlantis' cargo bay and part of the station including a solar array panel, as the joint complex passed over the southern hemisphere.

"What you don't see are the signatures of the tens of thousands who rose to orbit with us over the past 30 years, if only in spirit," Ferguson added.

Space station astronaut Michael Fossum accepted the model "as one of the greatest testaments to the shuttle's incredible capability." Almost all of NASA's space shuttle flights since 1998 were devoted to building and maintaining the space station — in all, 37 missions.

"Ninety percent of the world's population can look out of their backyards at night and see us going overhead," Fossum added.

Emotions also welled up down at Mission Control.

Lead flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho has one more shift remaining before signing off forever from shuttle Mission Control in Houston. He said he and his team vacillate "between intense pride at how well this mission has gone, and sometimes being somewhat freaked out, for lack of a more technical term."

Whenever he pauses to think about the finality of it all, "I get kind of freaked out and have this sinking feeling in my stomach that lasts about five or 10 seconds, and then I go back to doing an impersonation of a steely eyed missile man." he told reporters Monday.

Atlantis will pull away from the space station early Tuesday. As a final salute, the space station will rotate 90 degrees to provide a new angle for pictures.

It will be some time before there are so many people aboard the space station again. The Russian Soyuz capsules — the only way to get astronauts to the space station for at least the next few years — carry no more than three.

New commercial spacecraft under development for astronauts are still at least three to five years away from flying. The first private spacecraft to reach the space station will retrieve the flag left behind. It will fly again on the massive rocket that NASA plans to build to send astronauts out of low-Earth orbit, Ferguson said. "Perhaps to a lunar destination, perhaps to Mars," he noted.

The retirement of NASA's three remaining shuttles has been in the works since 2004, barely a year after the Columbia disaster. Then, President George W. Bush announced a new exploration vision aimed at returning astronauts to the moon. President Barack Obama nixed the moon in favor of an asteroid and Mars. The target launch dates: 2025 for an asteroid and the mid-2030s for the Red Planet.

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Earlier Monday, the astronauts removed a huge storage bin from the station and placed it back aboard the shuttle. The bus-size chamber holds nearly 3 tons of packing foam and other trash, including old equipment. NASA wanted to stockpile the orbiting lab with supplies in case the private companies get delayed in launching their own cargo ships. The first such supply run is expected by year's end.

Atlantis will remain at Kennedy Space Center for retirement, going on public display. Discovery and Endeavour will be transported to museums in suburban Washington and Los Angeles.

While many will descend on Kennedy for Thursday's 5:57 a.m. touchdown, Alibaruho will remain in Houston. He debated whether to be attend the final landing by a space shuttle, but decided to observe it from Mission Control.

"It's home, so that's where I'll be."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

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  1. Atlantis rising

    The space shuttle Atlantis makes its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, for the Defense Department's STS-51-J mission. At 176,413 pounds, Atlantis is nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, which was the heaviest shuttle. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 3 pounds less than the shuttle Endeavour (with the three main engines). Atlantis is also the last space shuttle to be retired.

    Other statistics:
    Length: 122.17 feet
    Height: 56.58 feet
    Wingspan: 78.06 feet (Phil Sandlin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First of its kind

    NASA's Magellan spacecraft is deployed from Atlantis' cargo bay in 1989 during the STS-30 mission. The Venus orbiter was the first interplanetary probe launched from a space shuttle. Later that year, Atlantis launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mission to Mir

    NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation during the STS-71 mission in June 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia's Mir space station for the first time. This historic photo of the linked spacecraft was taken from a Russian Soyuz capsule during a fly-around. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Here's looking at you

    The space shuttle Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in September 1996. This dramatic view, looking directly down onto the shuttle stack, was taken from the roof of the 525-foot-tall VAB. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Science in orbit

    Astronaut Shannon Lucid floats through the tunnel that connects Spacelab to Atlantis' cabin on Sept. 24, 1996. The Spacelab module rode in the shuttle's cargo bay and provided more space for scientific experiments. During this STS-79 mission, Atlantis linked up with Russia's Mir space station and brought Lucid back to Earth. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Lighting up the night

    Atlantis streaks into the early morning sky from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 15, 1997, as seen in this long-exposure photo taken from Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Fla. Atlantis' 10-day STS-84 mission featured a docking with Russia's Mir space station and a crew transfer. Atlantis docked with Mir seven times before the space station was deorbited in 2001. (Brian Cleary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Good as new

    The space shuttle Atlantis went back to its assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., for 10 months of refurbishment and upgrades in 1997-1998. This aerial photo shows Atlantis taking a piggyback ride back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 jet on Sept. 1, 1998. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Checking it out

    Atlantis' upgraded cockpit gets a once-over in 1999 from engineers and executives, including Roy Bridges, Kennedy Space Center's director (seated at bottom left), as well as Laural Patrick, Joann Morgan and George Selina. The upgrades made Atlantis the most modern orbiter in the shuttle fleet, with a control system as advanced as those found on commercial jet airliners and military aircraft. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tile tune-up

    Izeal Battle, a worker from United Space Alliance, repairs heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 30, 2004. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Back in business

    Atlantis' astronauts leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board the "Astrovan" for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B on Sept. 8, 2006, while gun-toting guards keep watch. A faulty fuel gauge grounded the shuttle for an extra day, but on Sept. 9 the shuttle lifted off on its STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. It marked Atlantis' first launch since 2002. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff!

    The space shuttle Atlantis rises on a pillar of cloud from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, 2006. Atlantis delivered structural components to the International Space Station during its STS-115 mission, resuming an orbital construction project that was stopped following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mission accomplished

    The clouds of Earth provide a backdrop for Atlantis shortly after its departure from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2006. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Night landing

    Atlantis lands amid darkness at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 21, 2006, bringing the STS-115 space station construction mission to a successful close. (Chris O'Meara / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kicking the tires

    Atlantis crew members Chris Ferguson and Dan Burbank look over their spaceship after landing at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 21, 2006. Ferguson was slated to be Atlantis' commander for NASA's final space shuttle mission. (Pierre Ducharme / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Blaze of glory

    The space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters light up for launch on June 8, 2007, beginning a flight to the International Space Station. This STS-117 mission marked the 250th orbital human spaceflight. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Watching the ascent

    NASA mission managers monitor Atlantis' liftoff from Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16, 2009. During the STS-129 mission, Atlantis delivered a payload platform and vital supplies to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Shuttle skywriting

    Nearly an hour after launch, contrails from the shuttle Atlantis' liftoff float above the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 8, 2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Last visit to Hubble

    Spacewalkers Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld work on the Hubble Space Telescope on May 16, 2009, during Atlantis' STS-125 mission. This marked the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Making a list

    Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino writes notes on a checklist during the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission on May 18, 2009. During this mission, Massimino became the first astronaut to send a Twitter update from orbit: "Launch was awesome!!" (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. First Family meets Atlantis

    NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia beneath the shuttle Atlantis during a tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2011. At the time, Atlantis was being prepared for its final flight. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Final flight

    Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. The shuttle fleet's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, brought supplies to the international space station. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Witnessing history

    Spectators watch the liftoff of Atlantis on its final mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Last rendezvous

    The space shuttle Atlantis docks with the International Space Station for the last time on July 10, 2011. The shuttle delivered more than four tons of food, clothes and other supplies to keep the space station going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned at least through the end of 2012. (NASA TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flight into history

    This poster pays tribute to the shuttle Atlantis' quarter-century of spaceflight: Graphic elements include the International Space Station and Russia's Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope (which Atlantis visited during the last servicing mission) and Venus and Jupiter (which were the destinations for probes launched from Atlantis). Threaded through the design are the mission patches for each of Atlantis' flights. A copy of this tribute poster hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Amy Lombardo / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre. 'After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It's come to a final stop,' Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied. (Nasa / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz, left, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land on July 21, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 21, 2011. The Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  2. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

Video: The final spacewalk

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