- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - In an unprecedented cosmic photo shoot Monday, a departing spaceship snapped close-up glamour pictures of the space shuttle Endeavour attached to the International Space Station.

And the linked station-shuttle did what any good fashion model does. It slowly turned and pivoted on its orbital runway. That maneuver was so that Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, clicking away inside a Russian Soyuz capsule, could get good digital photos and video.

The Soyuz hovered in space while the shuttle-station rotated 129 degrees.

Minutes earlier, the Russian capsule had backed away from the space station, carrying Nespoli and two other station residents back to Earth after a five-month stay. They landed safely about five hours later in Kazakhstan.

A Soyuz has never headed for home while a shuttle was parked at the space station. The shuttle program is ending and Endeavour is making the next-to-last flight, so it won’t happen again.

“It’s unprecedented and we worked hard to get here,” space station flight director Derek Hassmann said earlier Monday.

Nespoli took the pictures from about 600 feet _ about two football fields away. But in this era of instant gratification, NASA engineers, who said this was more for engineering than beauty purposes, were going to have to wait until Tuesday to pour over the photos.

The Soyuz wasn’t able to send the high quality pictures back to Earth live. NASA expected to get them sometime after the capsule lands.

Soyuz commander Dmitry Kondratyev asked Nespoli, who had the best view in the Soyuz upper portion: “Is it beautiful?”

“It’s nice, very, very nice,” Nespoli responded.

Nespoli, as planned, left the cameras in part of the Soyuz that burns up in space, but he made sure the digital photo cards returned to Earth with him. And if he didn’t do it himself, mission controllers reminded him a couple times.

This was such a one-of-a-kind event that even though Endeavour’s crew was supposed to be asleep, they were allowed to wake a couple hours early if they wanted to watch the orbital ballet.

NASA engineers on Earth were happy with the little they were able to see and were looking forward to the photos. “I think we’re going to get some fantastic images,” said flight director Dana Weigel.

After the picture taking, the Soyuz _ carrying Nespoli, American astronaut Catherine Coleman and Kondratyev _ fired its engines and headed back to Earth.

Their departure leaves three space station residents, as well as Endeavour’s six-man crew commanded by Mark Kelly, husband of wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Endeavour’s final flight ends June 1.

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