Shuttle Atlantis heads home
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Space shuttle Atlantis undocked from the international space station late Saturday night and headed home to Earth.
The spacecraft parted company high above the North Atlantic, ending eight days of joint flight that culminated with the debut of a new air lock.
The two crews gathered together for a final round of pictures, then hugged one another late Saturday. "It's hard for us to leave," said shuttle commander Steven Lindsey.
Just before the hatches between the spacecraft were closed, station commander Yuri Usachev gave a silver medal to each of the five shuttle astronauts as a gesture of thanks for the delivery of food, toilet supplies and the space station's newest addition -- the air lock.
"Thank you very much again, and have a soft, safe landing," Usachev said to Lindsey as Atlantis pulled away.
The shuttle is scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center early Tuesday, some 12 days after lifting off.
Third spacewalk a success
With the pop of a hatch and a salute to another momentous stroll in space 32 years earlier, shuttle astronauts Michael Gernhardt and James Reilly II emerged from the air lock early Saturday.
The air lock's premiere coincided with the anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's walk on the moon.
"On this historic anniversary of the first moonwalk, it's a real honor for the integrated shuttle and station crews, along with the flight control teams, to usher in a new era of spacewalking for the international space station," Gernhardt said as he floated out of the station and into the void of space.
Gernhardt and Reilly stared down at India as they slid out of the short tunnel one by one.
On their first two spacewalks earlier in the mission to install and outfit the air lock, the men exited from space shuttle Atlantis and had the shuttle cargo bay beneath them as a psychological safety net.
This time, however, there was nothing between them and Earth, 384 kilometers (240 miles) below. "You get a sense of falling, don't you?" Gernhardt said. "Wow, look at that!" Reilly replied.
The spacewalkers finished work on the air lock by hooking up the fourth and final high-pressure gas tank, which was hoisted by the space station's robot arm. Then they made their way up to the station's expansive solar wings to inspect a motor.
After four hours, the third and final spacewalk of Atlantis' mission was over. "You inaugurated the air lock in great fashion," Mission Control told the astronauts.
The only noteworthy problem Saturday was the amount of time it took to depressurize the air lock. Instead of six or seven minutes for the final stage, the process took 40 minutes, delaying the start of the spacewalk.
Air lock a highlight
Regardless of the trouble, the air lock is "fully operational," said station flight director Mark Kirasich.
Barring an emergency, the air lock will not be used again until December and possibly not until March. When Discovery pulls up next month with a fresh space station crew, spacewalkers will exit from the shuttle.
The astronauts assigned to that mission did not have enough time to train to use the station air lock, said shuttle flight director Paul Hill.
Now that the new air lock is in place, American space station residents can wear their own suits for spacewalks at any time, not just when a shuttle is present.
Once Russian hoses and other parts arrive this fall, the air lock will be compatible with Russian spacewalking suits, too.
"We really couldn't get past where station had grown to without adding this air lock and adding the station arm" back in April, Hill said. "Now that we have those, the gate is wide open for us to keep right on building."
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