Continued from page 1

“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.

“We just want to give you a final goodbye,” Ferguson told the station inhabitants just before Atlantis disappeared from sight.

To ensure their safe return to Earth, Ferguson and his crew conducted one final survey of the shuttle following the undocking, using the robotic arm and a laser-tipped extension. Experts on the ground 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.

All told, shuttles spent 276 days _ or nearly 40 weeks _ docked to the station. It’s now a sprawling complex with multiple science labs _ 13 rooms in all and more than 900,000 pounds of mass, most of that delivered by shuttles.

“So large that some astronauts have even momentarily gotten lost in it _ you can take it from me,” said Mission Control communicator Daniel Tani, a former station resident. “Of course, the ISS wouldn’t be here without the space shuttle so … we wanted to say thank you and farewell to the magnificent machines that delivered, assembled and staffed our world-class laboratory in space.”

NASA and its international partners mean to keep it running until at least 2020.

With the retirement of the shuttle fleet, the space station now must rely solely on other countries for restocking, at least until the first privately funded rocket blasts off with a load. That could come by year’s end.

Astronaut launches from U.S. soil, however, are three to five years away _ at best. Until then, Americans will continue flying to and from the space station via Russian Soyuz capsules at a hefty price.

Before leaving, the Atlantis crew gave their station colleagues a small U.S. flag that flew on the inaugural shuttle voyage in 1981. The flag is the prize for the first rocket maker that brings Americans back to the station, launching from America.

President Barack Obama described it last week as “a capture-the-flag moment here for commercial spaceflight.”

Obama wants private companies taking over Earth-to-orbit operations so NASA can concentrate on sending astronauts beyond. The goals: an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by the mid-2030s.

Alibaruho alluded to the potential difficulties ahead, as he described how he’s dealt with his own discomforts regarding the end of the shuttle program and the uncertain future for space exploration.

Story Continues →