When Space Shuttle Atlantis left Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, July 8, it marked the final liftoff for the long-running Space Shuttle Program, which has dominated NASA's manned operations for the past four decades. Over a 12-day mission (since extended to 13 days), the four-person crew on STS-135 will haul the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) Raffaello and a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier (LMC) to the International Space Station. Over the course of the mission, we'll be providing daily updates.
For the first time in eight days, the crew for Space Shuttle Atlantis and the crew for the International Space Station slept separated by sealed hatches between flight day 11 and flight day 12, which started with a wakeup call at 9:59 p.m. EDT. The song? "Don't Panic" by Coldplay, a favorite of Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley who had a long day ahead of him.
At 2:28 a.m. EDT, Space Shuttle Atlantis was undocked by the ISS for the final time. At that moment, the two crafts were 243 miles above the Pacific Ocean, just east of Christchurch, New Zealand. Over the course of the mission, Atlantis spent eight days, 15 hours and 21 minutes attached to the ISS, bringing the total time that Shuttles have been docked to the orbiting space laboratory to 276 days, 11 hours and 23 minutes -- nearly 40 full weeks.
After separating the two crafts, Hurley moved Atlantis about 600 feet away from the Space Station so that it could be turned and photographs taken. "This will provided mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus the opportunity to snap digital pictures of the station from angles the Shuttle never has seen before during a fly-around," NASA explained. Hurley then burned the Atlantis' thrusters to shift the Shuttle below the station. After more photographs were taken, Hurley performed the final separation burn, leaving the vicinity of the ISS at 4:18 a.m. EDT.
Preparing for an early morning landing on Thursday, the Atlantis crew began the customary late inspection at 6:19 a.m. Using the Shuttle's 50-foot-long Orbiter Boom Sensor System, the crew inspected Atlantis' heat shield to ensure it was be ready to reenter the Earth's atmosphere. The Orbiter Boom was used "to conduct a high fidelity, three-dimensional scan of areas of the shuttle that experience the highest heating during entry -- the wing leading edges and nose cap," NASA explained. The final inspection was completed at 10:30 a.m. EDT.