The crew of the Atlantis bade a bittersweet farewell to astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday, wrapping up the final visit by a space shuttle to the orbiting outpost.
As the shuttle age draws to a close after 37 dramatic rendezvous, their crews held a moving ceremony, exchanging embraces and kisses, before shutting the hatches separating them for a final time.
Astronauts then placed a US flag seal over the passageway separating the shuttle and the space station, in a poignant gesture to symbolize the end of one era of US spaceflight and the dawn of a new one.
“We’re closing a chapter in the history of our nation,” said astronaut Ronald Garan, a flight engineer stationed on the ISS.
“In the future when another spacecraft docks to that hatch ... we are going to be opening a new era and raising the flag on a new era of exploration,” Garan said as Atlantis wrapped up its visit.
Atlantis lifted off on July 8 on the final flight of the shuttle program, STS-135, with a four-member crew, lugging the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station.
The Atlantis crew were to spend the remainder of the day preparing for yesterday’s undocking. The shuttle will fly home tomorrow ahead of its retirement, which marks the end of the 30-year US space shuttle program.
The astronauts on the Atlantis — mission commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim — are wrapping up a 13-day mission delivering supplies to help sustain the space station in the post-shuttle era.
Astronauts bound for the ISS now have to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz rocket, at more than US$50 million per seat, until a new US spacecraft — a commercial launcher and capsule built by a private corporation in partnership with NASA — is ready to fly sometime around 2015.
NASA will rely on Russia to let it rent one of two available seats on the Soyuz, with a third seat on the space vehicle already taken up by the pilot.
The end of the shuttle program means that chances for astronauts to do the one thing they are trained for — fly into space — will become much rarer.
“Of course it’s hard because we dedicate our lives to fly in space. We are astronauts and it’s what we do for a living,” astronaut Steve Robinson, a veteran of four shuttle missions, said earlier this month.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently told the US House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee that there would be opportunities in commercial space flight in the near future.
“My hope is that we will have more than one American commercial-made capability to take humans to space by the 2015-’16 time frame,” Bolden said. “We are not abandoning human space flight.”
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