CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After a week of flying together, shuttle Atlantis undocked from a larger and virtually completed International Space Station yesterday and headed for home on its final voyage.
Atlantis is scheduled to land Wednesday. Today, the six crewmen will conduct one last safety inspection of their ship.
The two spacecraft parted company 220 miles above the Indian Ocean. Before the hatches closed between them, the commanding officers shook hands twice and laughed, then embraced. Their crewmates — representing the United States, Russia, and Japan — followed suit.
Earlier in the day, Atlantis commander Kenneth Ham told reporters that both crews had fun. All 12 space fliers bonded through hard work and performed as a single team, he said. Mission Control reveled in the camaraderie as well, and lead flight director Emily Nelson relayed her appreciation as Atlantis sailed away from the orbiting outpost.
The space station is bigger and packs more power, thanks to Atlantis and its crewmen. They left behind a new Russian compartment packed with supplies, as well as six fresh batteries and other equipment that was hooked up during a series of spacewalks.
Its total mass exceeds 816,000 pounds, and it’s 98 percent complete in terms of living space.
“This place is now a palace. It’s huge, and I’ve had great fun exploring it,’’ said shuttle astronaut Piers Sellers. “We’re seeing the station in pretty much its final form, and it’s really magnificent.’’
Two shuttle missions remain to wrap up NASA’s share of construction. Discovery is scheduled to fly in September, followed by Endeavour in November. As it stands, once Atlantis lands, it will never fly in space again.
NASA and some politicians are pushing hard for another mission, however, so Atlantis can haul up a final load of supplies in June 2011. The White House, which wants NASA concentrated on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars in the coming decades, would need to approve any extra flights.
Already, NASA is going through the list of museums interested in Atlantis and Endeavour. Discovery is promised to the Smithsonian Institution.