KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--With pilot Douglas Hurley at the controls, the shuttle Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station Tuesday and slowly pulled away after a five-spacewalk construction mission, leaving the lab complex with a new Japanese experiment platform, fresh solar array batteries, critical spare parts, and a new flight engineer.
"Houston, station, (this is) Endeavour on the big loop, we have physical separation," an astronaut reported at 1:26 p.m. EDT as hooks and latches in the station's docking mechanism disengaged.
Joining Hurley aboard Endeavour were commander Mark Polansky, Canadian flight engineer Julie Payette, David Wolf, Christopher Cassidy, Thomas Marshburn and returning space station flight engineer Koichi Wakata, who was replaced aboard the station by NASA astronaut Timothy Kopra.
Following a naval tradition adapted for space, station commander Gennady Padalka, a Russian cosmonaut, rang the ship's bell in the Harmony module as the two spacecraft slowly separated 218 miles above the central Indian Ocean in orbital darkness.
"Shuttle Endeavour, departing," Padalka said in English, ringing the bell. "ISS crew member Koichi Wakata, departing."
At a distance of about 400 feet, Hurley began a slow 360-degree fly-around, passing over the top of the station, then behind and below it while his crewmates photographed the outpost from all sides. A final rocket firing to leave the immediate vicinity was carried out at 3:09 p.m.
Both crews beamed down spectacular video as the shuttle circled the space station, showing the two spacecraft against the blue-and-white disc of Earth and the deep black of space.
Before launch, the astronauts planned to seal hatches between Endeavour and the station the day before undocking. But because the shuttle launch was delayed a full month, hatch closure and undocking were moved to the same day to get Endeavour out of the way before the arrival of a Russian Progress supply ship Wednesday.
With Endeavour safely on its way, Padalka, Kopra, and their crewmates--flight engineer Michael Barratt, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk--will prepare for the Progress arrival at 7:16 a.m. Wednesday.
At about the same time, the shuttle astronauts will be carrying out a post-undocking heat shield inspection before packing up and readying Endeavour for return to Earth. Touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for 10:48 a.m. Friday. Forecasters are predicting a slight chance of showers in the area at landing time.
Before undocking, the shuttle and space station crews gathered together one last time in the Harmony module, sharing hugs and handshakes before going their separate ways.
"As representatives of the crew of Endeavour, we just wanted to take this opportunity to extend our warmest thanks to Gennady, the station commander, to all the crew members of the International Space Station that will be here after we depart," Polansky said.
"They've been tremendous hosts and we've really enjoyed our stay. We're sad to leave you, but hopefully happy we've left the station in pretty good shape. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience to be part of the first crew of 13 people up here and to have representatives of all the international partners, which made it a very special event."
Padalka returned the compliments, saying "we were very, very happy to help you, to support you and your Endeavour team mates, very great job."
"A special thanks to Koichi-san," Padalka said. "He's very dedicated and a very, very good flight engineer. As crew commander, I want to say we could rely on him in any situation. ... So guys, we'll be missing you, have a safe trip, we'll be looking forward to seeing you again on the ground, sooner or later."