- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - The last space shuttle is headed home.

Atlantis left the International Space Station on Tuesday and slipped away after a partial lap around the station. Ten pairs of eyes pressed against the windows, four in the shuttle and six in the station.

All that remains of NASA’s final shuttle voyage is the touchdown, targeted for the pre-dawn hours of Thursday back home in Florida. Its return ends the 30-year run of a vessel that kept U.S. astronauts flying to and from orbit longer than any other rocketship

“Get her home safely and enjoy the last couple days in space shuttle Atlantis,” the station’s Mission Control told commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew.

Replied Ferguson: “It’s been an incredible ride.”

As a final salute, the space station rotated to provide never-before-seen views of the complex. Atlantis flew halfway around the outpost, cameras whirring aboard both craft to record the historic event.

Flight controllers savored the dual TV images. “It must look pretty spectacular,” Ferguson said.

And it did: Atlantis sailing serenely against the black void of space, its payload bay wide open, and the space station, its huge solar wings glowing golden in the sunlight.

As the lead team of flight controllers signed off for the very last time, the voice emanating from the shuttle’s Mission Control cracked with emotion. Another team would take over late Tuesday for landing.

To ensure their safe return, the crew conducted one final survey of the shuttle, using the robotic arm and a laser-tipped extension. Experts scrutinized the images for signs of micrometeorite damage.

Atlantis spent 8 1/2 days at the space station and left behind a year’s worth of supplies, insurance in the event commercial providers encounter delays in launching their own cargo ships.

It was the 37th shuttle mission, over more than 12 years, dedicated to building and maintaining the space station _ the largest structure ever to orbit the planet.

In keeping with tradition, Atlantis’ departure was marked by the ringing of the naval ship’s bell aboard the space station. The undocking occurred nearly 250 miles above the Pacific.

“Atlantis departing the International Space Station for the last time,” space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. announced, ringing the bell three times. “We’ll miss you guys. Godspeed.”

Ferguson thanked the six station residents for their hospitality, then added:

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