HOUSTON -The shuttle Atlantis and its seven-astronaut crew cast off from theInternational Space Station (ISS) early Monday to begin the trip home after addinga new European module to the orbiting laboratory.
Atlantisundocked from the space station at 4:24 a.m. EST (0924 GMT) as the twospacecraft flew 219 miles (354 km) above eastern New Zealand.
?We just wanted to thank you againfor being a great host and letting us enjoy your station for about a week,? Atlantiscommander Steve Frick told station commander Peggy Whitson. ?We had a greattime over there.?
Frick andhis crewmates delivered the European Space Agency?s (ESA) Columbuslaboratory and a new crewmember to the ISS during almost nine days dockedat the station. They are also returning U.S. astronaut Dan Tani back to Earthafter nearly four months stationed aboard the ISS.
?Well,thank you guys,? said Whitson, who rang the station?s bell to mark Atlantis?departure. ?It is a great new room you have added on and we really appreciateit. Get Dan home safe and thanks.?
Atlantis isdue to land in Florida early Wednesday to complete its 13-dayspaceflight.
Stationastronaut heads home
Atlantis ferriedESAastronaut Leopold Eyharts of France to the ISS, where he replaced Tani as amember of the station?s Expedition 16 crew. Tani is returning to Earth two months later than planned after delays to Atlantis? launch in December extended his mission.
?Itcertainly will be sad to leave,? Tani said, adding that he will miss his Whitsonand flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko of Russia?s Federal Space Agency. ?I?vegotten to know Peggy and Yuri quite well.?
MissionControl woke the Atlantis crew at 12:53 a.m. EST (0553 GMT) to a ukuleleversion of ?Somewhere Over the Rainbow? by Israel Kamakawiwo Ole. The song was chosen forTani by his wife Jane and their two young daughters, Keiko and Lilly.
?I can?t wait to get back home,?Tani said after hearing the tune. ?I?ve had such a wonderful time here, butit?s time to get back to my family.?
Before Atlantis pulled away from the space station, shuttlepilot Alan Poindexter flew the shuttle on a victory lap of sorts to allow hiscrewmates to observe their construction handiwork.
?It was a realpleasure to fly around the station,? Poindexter said. ?It was a beautifulsight.?
Poindexter?screwmates photographed and recorded video of the space station?s new look as heflew Atlantis.
?We?re justlooking for a complete survey,? ISS flight director Bob Dempsey said Sunday,adding that the station?s new Columbus lab would be likely target. ?One of themain reasons we do this is to monitor the exterior of the space station overtime.?
Even asAtlantis departed the ISS, NASA?s next space shuttle to fly made the trek outto its seaside launch pad. Riding atop its massive crawler carrier vehicle, the shuttleEndeavour ambled out to Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in CapeCanaveral, Fla., the same launch site where Atlantis lifted off on Feb. 7.
Endeavourand its STS-123 crew are slated to launch to the ISS on March 11 to deliver anew addition to the station?s Canadarm2 robotic arm and the first segment ofJapan?s massive Kibo laboratory.
Heatshield inspection up next
Today?sundocking was only the start of a busy day in space for the Atlantis crew. Theshuttle flyers will conduct a second full inspection of their orbiter?s heatshield covering its nose cap and wing leading edges.
Known as alate inspection, the four-hour survey will begin at 8:40 a.m. EST (1340 GMT).The now-standard chore is aimed at ensuring that Atlantis' heat shield hasnot suffered damage from orbital debris or micrometeorites during flight. Engineershave already cleared the shuttle of any concerns related to externalfuel tank debris from launch.
NASA haskept a close watch on shuttle heat shield health since the 2003 loss ofColumbia and its crew due to a wing damage sustained at launch.
Aboard thespace station, the three Expedition 16 astronauts have a light couple of daysahead to rest up after the frenetic pace of last week?s constructionwork. Eyharts is expected to spend some of that time activating science racksaboard Columbus, while Whitson has volunteered to perform extra experiments forresearchers on Earth.
?It?sdefinitely a lot quieter already,? she said late Sunday.
Frick andhis crew are due to land at KSC on Wednesday at 9:07 a.m. EST (1407 GMT),though NASA is activating a backup runway in California to return Atlantis assoon as possible and give the U.S. military enough time to shootdown a falling spy satellite laden with half a ton of toxic rocket fuel.
?We arestill planning on landing on the 20th,? Dempsey said. ?The weather is lookingpromising at the Kennedy Space Center.?
NASA isbroadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com'sshuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.
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