Video: Watch NASA's final shuttle mission

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updated 7/19/2011 3:38:14 AM ET 2011-07-19T07:38:14

A space shuttle left the International Space Station for the very last time Tuesday, heading home to end the 30-year run of a vessel that kept astronauts flying to and from orbit longer than any other U.S. rocket ship.

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Atlantis slipped away as the two spacecraft soared nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the Pacific.

All that remains of NASA's final shuttle voyage is the touchdown back home in Florida, scheduled before dawn on Thursday.

As a final salute, the space station rotated 90 degrees to provide never-before-seen views of the complex. The shuttle and its crew of four flew halfway around the station, cameras whirring aboard both vessels to record the historic event.

Emotions ran high, both in orbit and at Mission Control. The naval ship's bell aboard the space station chimed three times as Atlantis slowly backed away.

"Atlantis departing the International Space Station for the last time," announced space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. "We'll miss you guys. Godspeed."

Shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson thanked the six station residents for their hospitality, then added:

"We'll never forget the role the space shuttle played in its creation. Like a proud parent, we anticipate great things to follow ... Farewell, ISS. Make us proud."

Flight controllers savored the dual TV images of the shuttle — the last ever seen from orbit — and the station. Mission Control called it the second-best view on Earth.

"It must look pretty spectacular," Ferguson replied.

And it was: Atlantis sailing serenely against the black void of space, its payload bay wide open, and the space station, its huge solar wings glowing golden in the sunlight.

Atlantis spent 8½ days at the space station and left behind a year's worth of supplies, insurance in the event commercial providers encounter delays in launching their own cargo ships.

It was the 37th shuttle mission dedicated to building and maintaining the 12-year-old space station — the largest structure ever to orbit the planet. All told, shuttles spent 276 days — or nearly 40 weeks — docked to the station. It's 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 shuttles.

With the retirement of the shuttle fleet, the space station now must rely solely on other countries for restocking, at least until the first privately funded rocket blasts off with a load. That could come by year's end.

Image: Space station
NASA TV
The International Space Station is seen from an unusual angle through the shuttle Atlantis' docking port during a maneuver conducted after Tuesday's departure.

Astronaut launches from U.S. soil, however, are three to five years away — at best. Until then, Americans will continue flying to and from the space station via Russian Soyuz capsules at a hefty price.

Before leaving, the Atlantis crew gave their station colleagues a small U.S. flag that flew on the inaugural shuttle voyage in 1981. The flag is the prize for the first rocket maker that brings Americans back to the station, launching from America.

President Barack Obama described it last week as "a capture-the-flag moment here for commercial spaceflight."

Obama wants private companies taking over Earth-to-orbit operations so NASA can concentrate on sending astronauts beyond. The goals: an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by the mid-2030s.

As for NASA's three shuttles, they will become museum displays.

Atlantis will join Discovery and Endeavour in retirement after this 13-day journey, the 135th for the shuttle program.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

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

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