After a successful visit to the International Space Station, the crew of space shuttle Atlantis said farewell and undocked from the station at 4:24 am EST Monday morning. Their busy nine-day stay included three spacewalks and the installation of the European Columbus science module, as well as a switch-out in crew. European astronaut Leopold Eyharts stays on the ISS while US astronaut Dan Tani returns home after a four-month expedition on the station.
“We just wanted to thank you again for being a great host and letting us enjoy your station for about a week,” shuttle commander Steve Frick radioed to the ISS before undocking. “We had a great time over there, we learned a lot and we really, really enjoyed working with your crew, one quarter of which we have here and we’re happy to take Dan home. But just again, to you and to Yuri and to Leo, thanks very much.”
“Well thank you guys,” station commander Peggy Whitson replied. “Itâ€™s a great new room you’ve added on and we really appreciate it. Get Dan home safe, and thanks!”
In an emotional farewell ceremony on Sunday, Tani reflected on his extended mission. The delay of Atlantis’ mission due to fuel sensor problems made his stay in space almost two months longer than originally planned. During his time on the station, Tani’s mother, who he called his “inspiration” was killed in a car accident. He said he can’t wait to get back home to be with his family.
But his recent experiences have given him great hope for the future.
“Today I feel very optimistic about our space program and our society because I’m here, I’ve spent time with a man from France, from Italy and from Germany and from Russia,” he said. “Nations that have not always been friendly are now cooperating and we’re doing great things.”
With shuttle pilot Alan Poindexter at the controls, the shuttle did a one-loop fly around of the station before departing. Atlantis’ crew is inspecting the shuttle’s heat shield to get the final OK for landing, which is scheduled for shortly after 9:00 am Wednesday morning, if the weather holds in Florida. Both the Kennedy Space Center and the backup landing site in California will be ready as NASA wants the shuttle to land that day to give the military enough time to destroy a damaged spy satellite.
The next shuttle flight is coming right up. Endeavour began its crawl to the launch pad early Monday in to prepare for a March 11 liftoff.
North American residents with clear skies Monday evening should be able to see both Atlantis and the ISS flying in tandem. See NASAâ€™s orbital tracking site or Heavenâ€™s Above for sighting times for your area.