- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A space shuttle left the International Space Station for the very last time Tuesday, heading home to end the 30-year run of a vessel that kept U.S. astronauts flying to and from orbit longer than any other rocketship.

Atlantis slipped away after performing a partial lap around the space 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.

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

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

The space shuttle Atlantis, with the Earth behind it, still is docked to the International Space Station early on Tuesday, July 18, 2011, in this image made from NASA TV. (AP Photo/NASA)
The space shuttle Atlantis, with the Earth behind it, still is docked ... more >

The voice emanating from the shuttle Mission Control Center cracked with emotion, as the lead team of controllers signed off for the very last time.

“When you walk out the door of MCC there, turn around and make a memory,” Mr. Ferguson urged.

Flight Director Kwatsi Alibaruho did just that — actually turning around a couple of times on his way out. He’ll return to Mission Control on landing day as a bystander, one of dozens of “extras” expected to jam the control room.

“The sense of wanting to be a part of that moment is very strong and is going to be building,” Mr. Alibaruho later told reporters.

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.”

Mr. Ferguson thanked the six station residents for their hospitality, then added: “We’ll never forget the role the space shuttle played in its creation. Like a proud parent, we anticipate great things to follow. … Farewell, ISS. Make us proud.”

As a final salute, the space station rotated 90 degrees 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 of the shuttle — the last ever seen from orbit — and the station. Mission Control called it the second-best view on Earth.

“It must look pretty spectacular,” Mr. Ferguson said.

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