Atlantis undocks from space station

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

AP Aerospace WriterCAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- With fond farewells for their friends left behind, space shuttle Atlantis and its seven astronauts undocked from the international space station on Wednesday after a week of construction work.

Atlantis' crew installed a $790 million girder and railcar on the station and also dropped off fresh food, clean clothes and mail for the three station residents, who have two months remaining in their six-month mission.

"The last week up here at the international space station, at Alpha, has just been an incredible experience for everybody," shuttle commander Michael Bloomfield said before departing. He said of the space station crew: "We've enjoyed every minute with them, and it's going to be hard to leave them here."

The space station's Russian skipper, Yuri Onufrienko, thanked the shuttle crew and said: "That was really great job, and see you soon on the ground."

With that, the two crews shook hands and embraced, the hatches were sealed and, a few hours later, the shuttle pulled away as the spacecraft sped 250 miles above the Atlantic just west of Ireland.

As Atlantis undocked, space station astronaut Daniel Bursch, a Navy captain, rang the station's bell and called out: "Atlantis, departing."

Atlantis is due back on Earth on Friday.

The shuttle astronauts left space station Alpha 27,000 pounds heavier with the addition of the 44-foot girder.

They conducted four spacewalks, lasting a total of 28 hours, to hook up the aluminum beam. They also tested the railcar mounted to tracks on the girder. The railcar will be used later this year to transport the station's robot arm and more girders.

By 2004, this framework should extend 356 feet. Solar wings and radiators will be bolted to it.

Onufrienko and his American crewmates, Bursch and Carl Walz, are expecting more guests in another week. A Russian spacecraft carrying a Russian cosmonaut, an Italian astronaut and a South African millionaire tourist is due to lift off April 25 and arrive at the station two days later.

Before Atlantis left, Bursch proudly showed off some of his young sons' artwork, which was hand-delivered by the shuttle crew.

"The separation's been tough," the father of four said earlier this week. "Four down, two to go," he said, counting down the months.

Bursch and his crewmates are due to return to Earth in June aboard the next shuttle flight.

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