- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — Space Shuttle Atlantis pulled away from the International Space Station yesterday for a return trip to Earth after its six astronauts bade farewell to the residents of the orbiting laboratory with hugs, handshakes and the traditional ringing of a bell.

“The crew of Atlantis is departing,” station resident Jeff Williams radioed to Mission Control in Houston.

Pilot Chris Ferguson carefully eased Atlantis through a tight corridor away from the station. About 450 feet away, he fired jets to maneuver Atlantis around the space lab so the crew could take photos of their handiwork — a newly expanded station. The space station gleamed in the reflection of the sun.

After the trip around the space station, Mr. Williams thanked the shuttle crew members for their labors.

“Enjoyed the time together,” he said. “Look forward to seeing you back in Houston.”

Atlantis commander Brent Jett responded, “It was fun working with you guys. Be safe the rest of your mission.”

It has been years since NASA and its international partners have gotten a complete view of the orbiting lab, and the space station was quite different from how Atlantis’ crew found it six days ago.

In three arduous spacewalks with Earth as a backdrop, the crew unpacked and installed a 17-ton addition that contained a pair of solar wings that ultimately will generate a quarter of the space station’s power.

The wings are the first addition to the space lab since the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. NASA will affix two more pairs of solar wings on the space station before it is completed in 2010.

The crew spent the earlier part of the day hauling supplies and equipment from the spacecraft to the station, and getting ready for the undocking and fly-around.

Atlantis returns to Earth on Wednesday morning after 11 days in space.

Today, a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and the world’s first female space tourist is expected to blast off from the middle of the Kazakh steppe.

Anousheh Ansari is an Iranian-American entrepreneur who is paying an estimated $20 million to be the fourth amateur astronaut to visit the International Space Station.

Mrs. Ansari, 40, of Dallas, is scheduled to conduct several blood and muscular experiments for the European Space Agency (ESA) during her eight days on the station.

She will return to Earth on Sept. 28 with two of the station’s inhabitants — Mr. Williams and Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, who have been on the station since April.

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