“We’ll miss you guys. Godspeed” – Atlantis Departs International Space Station For Final Time

Filed under: Kennedy Space Center |

At 2.28am EDT this morning Shuttle Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson and pilot Doug Hurley gently triggered their spaceship’s steering jets to pull away from the International Space Station as they sailed about 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean. In doing so, it ended the 12 year program to build and service the orbital outpost. It was a solemn moment.

As a final salute, the space station was rotating 90 degrees to provide never-before-seen views of the complex and the shuttle and its crew of four flew halfway around the station, with cameras clicking on both vessels, to record the historic event.

Emotions ran high, both in orbit and at Mission Control as the naval ship’s bell aboard the space station chimed three times as Atlantis slowly backed away.

“Atlantis departing the International Space Station for the last time,” announced space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. “We’ll miss you guys. Godspeed.”

Shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson thanked the six station residents for their hospitality, then added:

“We’ll never forget the role the space shuttle played in its creation. Like a proud parent, we anticipate great things to follow … Farewell, ISS. Make us proud.”

Flight controllers savored the dual TV images of the shuttle – the last ever seen from orbit – and the station. Mission Control called it the second-best view on Earth.

“It must look pretty spectacular,” Ferguson replied.

And it was: Atlantis sailing serenely against the black void of space, its payload bay wide open, and the space station, its huge solar wings glowing golden in the sunlight.

Atlantis spent over 8 days at the space station and left behind a year’s worth of supplies, insurance in the event commercial providers encounter delays in launching their own cargo ships.

It was the 37th shuttle mission, over more than 12 years, dedicated to building and maintaining the space station – the largest structure ever to orbit the planet. All told, shuttles spent 276 days – or nearly 40 weeks – docked to the station. It’s now a sprawling complex with multiple science labs – 13 rooms in all and more than 900,000 pounds of mass, most of that delivered by shuttles.

With the retirement of the shuttle fleet, the space station now must rely solely on other countries for restocking, at least until the first privately funded rocket blasts off with a load. That could come by year’s end.

Astronaut launches from U.S. soil, however, are three to five years away – at best. Until then, Americans will continue flying to and from the space station via Russian Soyuz capsules at a hefty price.

Before leaving, the Atlantis crew gave their station colleagues a small U.S. flag that flew on the inaugural shuttle voyage in 1981. The flag is the prize for the first rocket maker that brings Americans back to the station, launching from America.

Atlantis is due back at the Kennedy Space Center at 5:57am EDT on Thursday morning. It’ll be a bittersweet moment for the folks in Central Florida as we here the sonic booms for the last time.

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