WASHINGTON – Atlantis left the International Space Station (ISS) early Tuesday, the last time the U.S. shuttle Undocking of the orbital outpost to begin its return to Earth and close forever the era of orbiter started 30 years ago on Thursday.
The undocking took place as scheduled at 6:28 GMT some 350 km directly above the Pacific east of New Zealand, said the commentator on NASA television.
A few minutes later a bell rang on board the ISS to salute the departure of Atlantis in a tradition borrowed from the Navy.
“Thank you for having completed the 37th mission of building the ISS, orbiting laboratory that extraordinary,” he said before wishing “good luck” to the astronauts of the shuttle.
Thanking him, Chris Ferguson, the commander of Atlantis, said that “ISS, born at the end of the Cold War, allows many nations to speak with one voice in space.”
On Monday the four astronauts of Atlantis had bid farewell to their six colleagues from the ISS before the lock chamber that separated the two vessels moored on July 10, exchanging handshakes and warm hugs.
“We‘re closing a chapter in the history of our nation,” space station flight engineer Ron Garan said in a ceremony marking the hatch closing.
‘In the future when another spacecraft docks to that hatch… we are going to be opening a new era and raising the flag on a new era of exploration,’ he added.
‘When this flag returns again someday to Earth by astronauts that came up on an American spacecraft, its journey will not end there,’ said shuttle commander Chris Ferguson.
This flag was attached to the door of the airlock of the station which was moored Atlantis and will remain there until the next visit of an American vessel, probably built by the private sector in partnership with NASA. But it probably will not be ready to fly before 2015.
Meanwhile U.S. astronauts will depend on Russian Soyuz to access the ISS.
Atlantis completes a mission of nearly eight days at the ISS during which it has delivered 4.2 tons of cargo and spare parts including 1.2 tons of food to the ISS and its crew to keep a permanent year.
The module is now packed with 5,666 pounds (2.57 tonnes) of waste and scrap kit, and will be moved back today to the shuttle’s cargo bay
The shuttle and its crew of four astronauts, including a woman, must ask the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral in Florida (southeast) Thursday at 5:58 am (9:58 GMT) before sunrise, if the weather conditions allow, completing a journey of thirteen days in space.
About an hour after being separated from the ISS, Atlantis began conducting a survey of twenty minutes around the station about 200 meters to film and take pictures.
The crew will conduct an inspection of thermal protection to the leading edge of the wings and nose of the orbiter to detect possible damage caused by the impact of micrometeorites or orbital debris.
To do this, they will use a high definition camera and a laser attached to the end of an extension of the shuttle’s robotic arm, operated from the inside.
The images will be transmitted to the Center Mission Control in Houston, Texas (south), where they will be analyzed and will give the green light to return to Earth if no serious damage is detected.