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Space shuttle sets sail from space station

/ Source: The Associated Press

After a flurry of hugs, handshakes and hatch closings, the shuttle Endeavour and its crew backed away from the international space station on Tuesday, ending an 11-day visit.

The shuttle's departure broke up what had been the biggest orbiting crowd ever — 13 people together in one space complex.

During their shared flight, the seven shuttle astronauts and six station residents improved and expanded the space station, installing a porch for experiments on Japan's science lab and plugging in fresh batteries. They also shared some unexpected inconveniences, most notably a broken toilet and air-cleansing system, both of which ended up being fixed.

On their last morning together, they even dressed alike. All wore matching black polo shirts and most of them had on tan pants.

Shuttle commander Mark Polansky thanked the station residents for being "tremendous hosts."

"It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience to be part of the first crew of 13 people up here and to have representatives from all the international partners, which made it a very special event," Polansky said before leaving.

"We will miss you," replied the station's skipper, Russian Gennady Padalka. "Have a safe trip."

The two spacecraft parted company 220 miles above the Indian Ocean. Endeavour took a lap around the space station for some impressive picture-taking before pulling away for good. The seven crew members hope to land in Florida on Friday. Before then, they will inspect their shuttle to make sure the thermal shielding was not pierced by micrometeorites or space junk.

Coming home is Koichi Wakata, a Japanese astronaut who spent four and a half months at the orbiting outpost. He was one of the last to leave the space station, waving goodbye until the moment he disappeared into the shuttle. Padalka offered him special thanks.

American Timothy Kopra replaced Wakata on the space station. Another American remained behind on the space station, as well as one Canadian, one Belgian and two Russians.

Endeavour is leaving behind a space station that is now 83 percent complete, with almost 700,000 pounds of mass.

Seven more shuttle flights are planned over the coming year to complete the orbiting outpost; the next one is targeted for the end of next month. The space station's population temporarily will swell to 13 again then.

An unmanned supply ship, meanwhile, will arrive at the complex Wednesday.

This report was supplemented by

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