Shuttle Atlantis Departs From Space Station
The bright sun greets the International Space Station in this Nov. 22 scene from the Russian section of the orbital outpost, photographed by one of the STS-129 crew members.
Credit: NASA

This story was updated at 3:50 p.m. EST.

The space shuttle Atlantis cast off from the International Space Station early Wednesday after almost a week linked to deliver vital spare parts.

The shuttle detached from the orbiting laboratory at 4:53 a.m. EST (0953 GMT), and flew in a circle around the station so that astronauts on the orbiter could snap detailed photographs to check on the state of the outpost.

"It?s a pretty exciting thing to do, be able to see the station you were living in again now on the farewell," STS-129 commander Charlie Hobaugh said in a preflight interview. "Just having it gives us a new snapshot in time of the condition of the vehicle at that point."

Atlantis' pilot Barry "Butch" Wilmore, a first-time spaceflyer, helmed the ship for the station fly-around.

"It?s a good day for the pilot the way we plan ?em out," Wilmore said in a NASA interview. "We?ll do a burn that will put us initially on a trajectory to leave station and start on our way home. So as I will do that burn going home, going home to my wife, Deanna, and our two girls, that?ll be a neat time."

Atlantis is slated to land Friday at 9:44 a.m. EST (1444 GMT) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Heat shield scan

The astronauts spent Wednesday conducting a final scan of their shuttle's sensitive heat shield to make sure it is intact and safe for re-entry. They used a sensor-tipped boom attached to their shuttle's robotic arm to pore over the tiles, and preliminary data indicates that there are no major issues to worry about.

NASA is looking into a problem that arose today with the shuttle Atlantis' waste water tank, which is full of about 165 pounds of urine produced over Atlantis' week-long stay at the space station. When the crew tried to empty the tank this morning, the nozzle was blocked and only emptied partway.

Ground crews are looking into the issue, but lead shuttle flight director Mike Sarafin said it was "not a showstopper."

"We know that we can make it through landing day without having any problems," he said. "It's only if we extend past the planned landing day on Friday that we may have to take additional measures."

Eager for home

Onboard the shuttle with Hobaugh and Wilmore are mission specialists Leland Melvin, Randy Bresnik, Mike Foreman, Robert "Bobby" Satcher, Jr, and Nicole Stott. Stott only recently joined the Atlantis crew. She has spent the last three months on the International Space Station as an Expedition 21 flight engineer.

After an extended time in space, Stott said she is eager to be back on the ground.

"I think the two main things are seeing my young son and my husband," she said Tuesday before boarding Atlantis. "I think just getting back out in the sunshine and just being back with family and friends is the main thing."

Bresnik is also excited to return to Earth so that he can meet his new daughter, baby Abigail, who was born to Bresnik's wife while the astronaut was in space.

The STS-129 crew is leaving a re-stocked space station. Atlantis delivered about 15 tons of spare supplies to last the station beyond the point when shuttles retire and only Russian Soyuz spacecraft and unmanned cargo ships service the outpost.

The spaceflyers are leaving five people on the space station, now commanded by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, who took the helm Tuesday during a change-of-command ceremony.

SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Atlantis' STS-129 mission to the International Space Station with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz and Managing Editor Tariq Malik based in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.