HOUSTON (Reuters) - With hugs and handshakes, the space shuttle Endeavour astronauts said good-bye to the crew of the International Space Station on Monday and prepared to take off for home after delivering a piece of Japan’s first space laboratory.
Hatches between the two spaceships were closed at about 5:30 p.m. EDT, ending a 12-day stay that prepared the space station to receive its biggest, and possibly last, laboratory.
Endeavour 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-long, tour bus-sized module, is due to launch aboard shuttle Discovery on May 25.
“We had a great time here,” Endeavour commander Dominic Gorie told the station crew. “It’s a strange feeling to want to see your families but not want to leave a wonderful place.”
Staying behind is astronaut Garrett Reisman, who replaced returning French astronaut Leopold Eyharts. Reisman 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.
Endeavour pilot Greg Johnson was scheduled to slip the shuttle out of its docking berth shortly before 8 p.m. EDT as the ships sailed 215 miles over Ireland.
The crew has a chance to admire their handiwork during a lap around the station before Johnson fires Endeavour’s steering jets to begin the voyage back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The shuttle blasted off from the Florida spaceport on March 11. Touchdown is expected at 7:05 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.
“This mission has gone extraordinarily well,” LeRoy Cain, head of NASA’s mission management team, told reporters at the 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 a storage room for Kibo, 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 inspection boom onto 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.
Inflight 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 also is 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