CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of seven departed the international space station on Friday, ending a 12-day visit that left the orbiting complex with more modern and deluxe living quarters for bigger crews.
Endeavour pulled away as the two spacecraft soared 220 miles above the Pacific, just east of Taiwan.
It was a poignant moment for all involved. Space station skipper Mike Fincke was missing his shuttle friends, even before Endeavour undocked.
"Thanks for the incredible makeover and leaving the station in fantastic shape," Fincke radioed. "And thanks to your heroic efforts, we are one step closer to a six-person crew."
Replied shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson: "Even from 25 feet, you look better."
With pilot Eric Boe at the controls, Endeavour slowly backed up 450 feet and completed a full lap around the space station, essentially for picture-taking. The shuttle is due back on Earth on Sunday.
Cameras snapped in both directions as Endeavour circled the space station. "You look, as far as we can tell, clean and dry from the top," Fincke called out. "And mighty spectacular imagery we got as you flew over the mouth of the Amazon River."
Shortly after the morning undocking, Mission Control advised Endeavour's astronauts to put off their third and final rocket firing to avoid a piece of an old, broken-up Russian satellite. The maneuver was rescheduled for early evening.
At the same time, Mission Control moved up slightly the survey of Endeavour's wings and nose. The astronauts finished the inspection late Friday afternoon, using a laser-tipped boom. It's standard procedure to ensure that the shuttle is free of any space junk hits that could endanger the astronauts during re-entry.
Analysts on the ground will study the images and will reach a decision Saturday about "whether Endeavour is ready to come home, or if we have any additional work ahead of us because of orbital debris strikes," said flight director Mike Sarafin.
Thanks to Endeavour's delivery and the practically nonstop work of all 10 space travelers, the space station has almost everything it needs to accommodate a larger crew. NASA hopes to double the space station population — currently at three — by the middle of next year.
The space shuttle dropped off an extra bathroom, kitchen and bedrooms, and a new recycling system designed to turn astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water. The processor needed some work before it finally started spewing out recycled urine.
Endeavour's astronauts also carried out an unprecedented clean and lube job on a jammed rotary joint during four spacewalks.
An initial test of the joint — which is needed to keep the solar wings on the right side of the space station pointed toward the sun — indicated that the repair work was successful.
The shuttle spent 11 days, 16 hours and 46 minutes at the space station, the second-longest visit ever.
Before leaving, Chamitoff said he couldn't wait to see his wife and twins, who will turn 4 in January, and dig into some pizza and rocky road ice cream. He said it was hard not having cold drinks for six months, but noted that will be remedied with the new refrigerator that was left behind by Endeavour.
Fincke, meanwhile, had a post-Thanksgiving yearning for pumpkin pie. "I think that's one of the first things I'll probably have when I come back," he told flight controllers.
He's not due back on Earth until April.