Unprecedented photo op for space shuttle-station

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HOUSTON (AP) - A Russian Soyuz space capsule has backed away from the International Space Station.

That sets the stage Monday afternoon for an unprecedented close-up photo shoot of the combined space station and shuttle Endeavour.

It’s the first time another spaceship is taking close-up images of a shuttle docked to the space station.

The shuttle-station complex will do a model-like slow pivot and turn so the Soyuz can get good glamour shots with both a digital still camera and a high definition video camera.

Three of the six space station residents are heading home after a five-month mission. Their capsule will land later Monday evening in Kazakhstan.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ The astronauts circling Earth got another VIP call from Rome on Monday.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano phoned the shuttle-station complex, two days after Pope Benedict XVI called.

Napolitano spoke with the two Italian astronauts, Paolo Nespoli and Roberto Vittori. The spacemen held up an Italian flag that will return to Earth with Nespoli in just hours, and flapped it between them.

“It’s a little hard to make the flag fly in the absence of gravity,” Nespoli explained.

Vittori received the flag from the president to mark the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification, and flew it up on Endeavour, which is making NASA’s next-to-last space shuttle flight.

“We’re the country of poets, travelers and discoverers, and we must continue to do these things, and these are the things that make us grow.” Nespoli said in Italian.

The president asked Nespoli _ who’s ending a five-month stay at the International Space Station _ whether he could see the gondalas and Grand Canal of Venice. “Or is that a little too much to ask?” he wondered.

Nespoli said by using a zoom lens, he could see ferries, but no gondalas. He spoke of the breathtaking views of Earth seen from the space station’s Italian-made cupola, or glassed-in lookout: the Egyptian pyramids, Great Wall of China, Venice, Mount Vesuvius.

“But also from another side it looks fragile,” Nespoli said, describing the thin layer of atmosphere.

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