The space shuttle Atlantis left the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday, marking the vehicle's last return for the year and heralding the end of NASA’s shuttle program.
According to a Reuters report, the shuttle undocked from the ISS at 4:53 a.m. EST and is due to arrive at Kennedy Space Station in Florida on Friday with its six-member crew, as well as flight engineer Nicole Stott, who had spent the three months in orbit aboard the ISS. During the 11-day mission, astronauts conducted three spacewalks. They are returning with the station’s broken urine-recycling system, which purifies waste water into drinkable water.
Atlantis’s flight is 129th in the shuttle program and NASA’s fifth and final flight this year. Atlantis and two sister ships, Discovery and Endeavour, are to be retired by the end of 2010. However, five more missions are scheduled next year to complete construction of the space station.
A joint project by 16 nations— the $100 billion station has been under construction since 1998.
After the shuttle fleet’s retirement, Russian, European, and Japanese cargo ships will keep supplying the station with food and equipment. However, none of them can transport the heavy pumps, tanks, and gyroscopes carried by Atlantis.
American space station crew members will fly in Russian Soyuz capsules, a service that will cost the United States about $50 million per seat.
NASA is working on a new spacecraft to replace the 1970s-era space shuttle with the hope of returning U.S. astronauts to the moon, but will not unveil it until 2015 at the earliest.
The next trip into space is planned for February when the shuttle Endeavour delivers the station’s final equipment.