Monday, July 18, 2011

Crew set to return cargo module to Atlantis

Atlantis astronauts early this morning closed the hatch to a large cargo module they spent much of the past week unloading and packing while it was attached to the International Space Station.

They'll return the Italian-built module named Raffaello to Atlantis' payload bay later this morning, during their last full day docked at the station.

A vestibule between Raffaello and the Earth-facing port on the station's Harmony node is being depressurized.

Soon, working from a robotics work station in the station's multi-windowed cupola, Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialist Sandy Magnus will grab hold of Raffaello with the station's 58-foot robotic arm.

Computer commands will drive open 16 bolts to allow the module to be freed from its port. Hurley and Magnus were expected to lift Raffaello away from the station around 6:45 a.m., but the crew is running a bit behind schedule.

Later this morning, around 9:20 a.m. if the schedule holds, the four Atlantis astronauts will join six space station residents for a farewell ceremony before they return to the orbiter and hatches between the spacecraft are shut for the last time.

"We know you’ve had a wonderful time with all your friends on ISS and it will be hard to say your goodbyes this evening before hatch closing. Be sure to give them lots of hugs from all of us!" mission controllers said in a daily package of notes sent up to the crew.

Atlantis is scheduled to undock from the station around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday and end its 13-day mission -- the shuttle program's 135th and last -- with a landing at Kennedy Space Center around 6 a.m. Thursday.

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