- Associated Press - Monday, July 18, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - The astronauts on NASA’s final shuttle voyage floated out of the International Space Station for the last time Monday, leaving behind a historic U.S. flag and a commemorative shuttle model to mark the end of a 30-year era.

Atlantis was set to undock from the orbiting lab early Tuesday _ providing the last glimpses of a space shuttle in flight before the fleet is retired.

As the hatches swung shut behind the four crew members of Atlantis, it closed “a chapter in the history of our nation,” space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. noted in Monday’s emotional farewell ceremony.

He attached the small flag _ which rocketed into orbit on the very first shuttle flight in 1981 _ to the door of the space station hatch before the shuttle astronauts departed. Atlantis has been parked at the space station for over a week, unloading a year’s worth of supplies and packing up trash and old equipment for the trip home.

Atlantis is due to land at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center just before sunrise Thursday.

It was a heartfelt goodbye for the two crews, numbering 10 astronauts in all from three countries. They embraced one another. Sandra Magnus wiped away tears.

Atlantis‘ commander, Christopher Ferguson, presented the flag to the space station crew, along with a small model of a space shuttle. He said he wishes he could have brought a monument to commemorate the 30-year shuttle program, but it would not have fit.

“We brought the best monument we could possibly find, and that’s a space shuttle model,” he said.

The model, signed by senior shuttle managers and flight directors, was also was hung near the hatch.

“What you don’t see are the signatures of the tens of thousands who rose to orbit with us over the past 30 years, if only in spirit,” Ferguson added.

Space station astronaut Michael Fossum accepted the model “as one of the greatest testaments to the shuttle’s incredible capability.” Almost all of NASA’s space shuttle flights since 1998 were devoted to building and maintaining the space station _ in all, 37 missions.

“Ninety percent of the world’s population can look out of their backyards at night and see us going overhead,” Fossum added.

Emotions also welled up, down at Mission Control.

Lead flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho has one more shift remaining before signing off forever from shuttle Mission Control in Houston. He said he and his team vacillate “between intense pride at how well this mission has gone, and sometimes being somewhat freaked out, for lack of a more technical term.”

Whenever he pauses to think about the finality of it all, “I get kind of freaked out and have this sinking feeling in my stomach that lasts about five or 10 seconds, and then I go back to doing an impersonation of a steely eyed missile man.” he told reporters Monday.

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