Shuttle Atlantis leaves space station, headed home

Space shuttle Atlantis flies around the International Space Station after undocking.
Space shuttle Atlantis flies around the International Space Station after undocking. Photo credit: NASA

Shuttle Atlantis undocked from the International Space Station early Wednesday and headed home with one astronaut eager to hold his newborn daughter for the first time and another who's been away from her young son since the summer.

Before signing off from Mission Control, flight director Mike Sarafin wished the seven crew members a happy Thanksgiving and a good landing on Friday.

"We'll do our best to stay sharp until the round things stop rolling," replied commander Charles Hobaugh.

The shuttle departed as the spacecraft soared nearly 220 miles above the Pacific, just northeast of New Guinea. Over the past week, the astronauts stockpiled the outpost and performed maintenance that should keep it running for another five to 10 years.

Astronaut Nicole Stott, on her way home after three months in orbit, said goodbye to the five colleagues she left behind on the space station.

"It was a real pleasure working with you guys," she radioed. "I was blessed with a wonderful crew, and I look forward to seeing you guys on the ground real soon."

"We'll miss you," said fellow American astronaut Jeffrey Williams, who's just two months into a six-month mission. A Belgian on board who will be leaving the space station next week in a Russian capsule told Stott to take care. "Have a safe trip home," Frank De Winne said.

Wednesday was the 89th day in space for Stott, a 47-year-old engineer. She flew to the space station at the end of August. She said she can't wait to see her husband and 7-year-old son, and to have a pizza.

Spaceman Randolph Bresnik is also eager to get back. His wife gave birth to their second child, Abigail Mae Bresnik, on Saturday in Houston - shortly after his first spacewalk.

A few hours after the undocking, the shuttle astronauts pulled out a 100-foot, laser-tipped inspection boom and conducted one final survey of the wings and nose of their ship. They needed to make sure the vulnerable thermal shielding was not damaged by micrometeorites over the past week.

The astronauts interrupted the routine surveillance to look at a clogged nozzle, part of the shuttle's waste water removal system. Only about half of the collected urine and condensation could be dumped overboard earlier in the day, and Mission Control wanted to see if ice might be blocking the nozzle. Nothing unusual was spotted.

Sarafin said even if the nozzle cannot be cleared, it won't affect the astronauts unless the landing is delayed beyond Friday. Among the measures the crew might have to employ in that case: using Apollo-style bags instead of the toilet for urinating.

Fortunately, good landing weather is expected Friday morning.

Atlantis' cargo bay - brimming with big spare parts when it arrived at the space station last Wednesday - was empty. The astronauts installed the equipment during three spacewalks and performed other work to keep the station operating long after the retirement of NASA's three shuttles next fall.

The next shuttle visit, by Endeavour, is in February.

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