The space shuttle Atlantis undocked from the international space station early Monday for its journey back to Earth, ending a nearly nine-day visit to deliver, install and activate Europe’s new orbital laboratory.
Pilot Alan Poindexter gently backed the shuttle away from the station after the vehicle sprung loose from its docking port.
He then guided the ship through a full lap around the orbiting outpost, primarily so crew members could take pictures of the station’s new configuration.
“We’re looking forward to getting home and we’re headed home now,” Poindexter said.
‘We had a great time’
Just before Atlantis undocked, shuttle commander Stephen Frick thanked station commander Peggy Whitson and her crew for their hospitality.
“We had a great time over there,” he said. “We learned a lot and we really, really enjoyed working with your crew.”
“Thanks you, guys,” Whitson responded. “It’s a great new room you’ve added on and we really appreciate it.”
Atlantis’ crew arrived at the station Feb. 9 and planned to quickly get to work installing Columbus, Europe’s $2 billion contribution to the station. But German astronaut Hans Schlegel fell ill after the launch, forcing NASA to pull him from the installation spacewalk and delay the outing.
Schlegel, 56, quickly recovered and helped guide his spacewalking replacement from inside the station. He was well enough to participate in the mission’s second spacewalk. Neither he nor NASA disclosed the nature of his illness.
Later Monday, the crew was to take another close-up laser survey of Atlantis’ wings, this time to check for any possible micrometeorite damage that may have occurred in orbit. Inspections conducted earlier in the mission found a torn corner on a thermal blanket near the shuttle’s tail, but engineers are confident it will stand up to the intense re-entry heat.
NASA is vigilant when it comes to the shuttle’s thermal shielding, ever since Columbia was destroyed in 2003 following a foam strike to its wing during launch.
Heading home after four months
Heading home with Atlantis is astronaut Daniel Tani, who’s spent four months at the space station. Tani was supposed to fly home aboard Atlantis in December, but fuel gauge problems delayed the shuttle’s trip.
Before the hatches between the spacecraft closed on Sunday, Tani paid tribute to his mother, Rose, who was killed in a car accident while he was in space — “my inspiration” — and his wife, Jane, who “had the hard work while I was having fun.”
“I can’t wait to get back to her and my two little girls,” he said.
Atlantis is scheduled to land Wednesday morning. Both the Kennedy Space Center and the backup landing site in California will be ready; the space agency wants the shuttle down that day to give the military enough time to destroy a damaged spy satellite.
The space agency already is looking ahead to the next shuttle flight to the orbiting station. Endeavour made the slow trip to the launch pad early Monday in preparation for a March 11 liftoff.