Mir, shuttle undock for last time
Web posted at: 12:49 p.m. EDT (1649 GMT)
JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston (CNN) -- After astronauts bid a final farewell, space shuttle Discovery undocked from Mir on Monday, marking the end of America's three-year partnership with the Russian space station and the transition into a new era of space flight: the International Space Station.
Discovery, completing NASA's ninth and last docking with Mir, slowly pulled away from the space station at 12:01 p.m. EDT after four days of linked flight.
Before the separation, the two crews rechecked the docking tunnel between the two ships for any signs of leakage or damage. Before beginning the voyage back to Earth Discovery was to circle Mir for an hour, stopping at the halfway point while cosmonauts pump fluorescent gas into Mir's leaking Spekter module.
Russian space officials hoped the astronauts would be able to see the gas seeping from Spekter, which was damaged in collision with a supply ship last June.
Television pictures since Thursday's Discovery-Mir linkup have come from Mir alone because of transmission problems with the shuttle's TV antenna.
Three hours before the two spacecraft separated there was an emotional last gathering as the two crews jammed into Mir's small docking compartment.
Discovery's astronauts and Mir's cosmonauts exchanged handshakes and hugs before closing the hatches between the two spacecraft.
"This is great, and the whole flight has been fantastic. We're looking forward to working with you again," shuttle commander Charles Precourt told his Mir counterpart, Talgat Musabayev.
In return, Musabayev presented Precourt with one last gift: a huge wrench that was used in space walks outside the Mir.
"We're going to need this for all the work that we have ahead of us, Talgat," Precourt said.
Musabayev bid the shuttle crew "bye-bye" and Precourt responded with "do svidanya," Russian for "until we meet again."
Precourt, who was making his third visit to Mir, was the last American to leave the Russian station before the hatches between the two craft closed at 9:07 a.m. EDT.
Discovery, the ninth and last shuttle to dock with Mir, is due to land back at Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Friday. Until then, the crew will conduct scientific experiments.
In addition to bringing home astronaut Andrew Thomas, who spent 130 days aboard Mir, Discovery is also carrying several tons of Russian gear that was loaded onto the shuttle during the four days the two spacecraft were docked.
Supplies also were transferred from Discovery onto Mir.
Russian space officials plan to vacate Mir and send it on a fiery dive through the atmosphere by the end of 1999 so they can devote all their scarce resources to the International Space Station, a five-year task that will require at least 43 launches, with the first one due in November.
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