20 Jul 2011

Space shuttle makes way for space taxis

10:24 am on 20 July 2011

The US shuttle Atlantis has undocked from the International Space Station and is heading home to Earth for the last time.

"Farewell ISS, make us proud," said Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson after the undocking, the BBC reports.

When the shuttle lands on Thursday in Florida, it will end NASA's 12-year programme to build and service the orbital outpost.

Onboard Russian computers commanded the ISS to swing around 90 degrees so Atlantis could obtain a different perspective, getting a good look along the station's truss, or backbone, and at the ends of some of the modules.

The BBC says imagery will help engineers on the ground understand better how the materials that make up the ISS are coping in the harsh environment of space.

The Atlantis crew of four presented the station crew of six with two leaving presents before climbing aboard the orbiter and closing the hatch.

One was a model of the shuttle - a reminder of the pivotal role the vehicle has played in building the station. The other was a small American flag flown on the very first space shuttle mission in 1981.

This flag will be claimed by the first US commercial company to fly an astronaut vehicle to the ISS.

NASA has hired two firms to resupply the station from next year. Russia, Europe and Japan also fly freighters to the station.