The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis is on its way home after undocking from the International Space Station, beginning the last leg of its final voyage - and of the 30-year U.S. shuttle program.
NASA video of Atlantis undocking from the ISS
Atlantis and its four-member crew separated from the ISS early Tuesday over New Zealand after an eight-day visit to deliver a year's worth of supplies to the orbiting outpost and haul trash and used equipment back to Earth. The shuttle flew one lap around the space station before maneuvering away for the last time.
Flight commander Chris Ferguson thanked the space station residents for their hospitality, and said the astronauts will never forget the role the space shuttle played in the creation of the ISS. He added that like a proud parent, they anticipate great things to follow.
He told Mission Control that it has been an "incredible ride."
As a final salute, the crew of the space station rotated 90 degrees to allow shuttle astronauts to record images of the ISS at never-before-seen angles.
After leaving, the Atlantis crew began inspections of the shuttle's thermal protection unit to ensure that areas that experience the highest heating during reentry are intact.
Atlantis is to end its 33rd and final flight with a Thursday morning landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The space shuttle has spent some 13 days in space - and 26 years of service.
On Monday, the Atlantis crew commander Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim bid an emotional farewell to the space station crew, exchanging tearful hugs before closing the hatches between the two spacecraft for the last time.
The astronauts left behind a model of the space shuttle and a U.S. flag that flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia on the first shuttle mission in 1981.
The U.S. space agency NASA has contracted with four commercial space companies to develop new spacecraft to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS. The new vehicles are still three to five years away from service. Russian Soyuz capsules will handle transport of astronauts for the next few years.