Shuttle departs space station, heads for home
By Irene Klotz
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Space shuttle Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station on Monday to begin its return to Earth after delivering part of Japan's ambitious space laboratory.
With pilot Greg Johnson at the controls, Endeavour slowly backed away from the station, then circled it for a photo inspection of the outpost before heading home.
As Endeavour pulled away the station crew, in a naval tradition adopted by the station, rang a bell to mark its departure.
"Endeavour departing," said astronaut Garrett Reisman.
"Copy, fair winds and following seas to you guys," shuttle commander Dominic Gorie radioed back.
Undocking, which took place 215 miles above the Indian Ocean near Australia, was delayed about half an hour because of problems latching a station solar power panel in place to prevent its movement as the two ships separated.
Earlier, Endeavour astronauts and the station crew said goodbye with hugs and handshakes and closed the hatches between the spacecraft.
The shuttle blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida March 11 and was scheduled to land there at 7:05 p.m. EDT (2305 GMT) on Wednesday.
Endeavour, which stayed at the station 12 days, carried a Canadian robot and a new crew member to the orbital outpost in addition to a storage chamber for Japan's elaborate Kibo complex. The main part of the lab, a 37-foot (11-metre)-long, tour bus-sized module, is due to launch aboard shuttle Discovery on May 25.
"We had a great time here," Gorie told the station crew before undocking. "It's a strange feeling to want to see your families but not want to leave a wonderful place."
Reisman, who flew up on Endeavour, replaced returning French astronaut Leopold Eyharts and will return with Discovery's crew in June.
"It's hard for me to believe that it's already finished," said Eyharts, who arrived last month to oversee setup of Europe's new Columbus laboratory.
"This mission has gone extraordinarily well," LeRoy Cain, head of NASA's mission management team, told reporters at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I think we probably raised the bar a little bit with this mission."
The Endeavour crew pulled off five spacewalks to attach Kibo's storage room, assemble the Canadian robot Dextre, place science experiments outside the station and inspect a broken joint on one of the station's solar wing panels.
"If you look at the complexity of the spacewalks alone, it's eye-watering," Cain said.
During the final spacewalk on Saturday, astronauts stashed their shuttle's 50-foot (15-metre) inspection boom on to a station truss so the next crew can have it to check their ship for damage. The Kibo lab that will be delivered during the mission is so big, there is no room for the boom in Discovery's cargo bay.
In-flight inspections of the shuttle's heat shields have been mandatory since NASA resumed flights following the 2003 Columbia disaster. The accident, which killed seven astronauts, was triggered by undetected heat shield damage that occurred during launch.
With plans to fly 10 more construction and resupply flights to the station, NASA is trying to finish the orbital outpost by 2010 when the aging shuttle fleet is to be retired.
A final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope is also planned for later this year. Cain said Monday that delays producing the shuttle's fuel tanks might postpone the Hubble mission beyond its scheduled August 28 launch date.
(Editing by Jim Loney and Todd Eastham)