A ship's bell rang in the International Space Station's Harmony node a few minutes after Atlantis became the last shuttle to leave it at 2:28 a.m. today.
"Atlantis departing the International Space Station for the last time," radioed station flight engineer Ron Garan, observing a longtime naval tradition followed for departing orbiters. "Thank you for your 12 docked missions to the ISS and for capping off 37 space shuttle missions to construct this incredible orbiting research facility. We'll miss you guys, Godspeed, soft landing and we’ll see you back on Earth in the fall."
"When a generation accomplishes a great thing, it's got to a right to stand back and for just a moment admire and take pride in its work," replied Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson, a retred Navy captain. "From our unique vantage point right here perched above Earth, we can see the International Space Station as a wonderful accomplishment.
"Born at the end of the cold war, it's enabled many nations to speak (as) one in space. As the ISS now enters the era of utilization, we'll never forget the role the space shuttle played in its creation. Like a proud parent we anticipate great things to follow from the men and women who build, operate and live there. From this unique vantage point, we can see a great thing has been accomplished. Farewell ISS. Make us proud."
Atlantis made its first of seven visits to Russia's Mir space station in June 1995, and went on to visit the International Space Station 12 times.
The current flight is Atlantis' 33rd since 1985, and the shuttle program's 135th and last since 1981.
The first ISS components were joined in space in December 1998, on an Endeavour mission commanded by Bob Cabana, now Kennedy Space Center's director.
After the shuttle's final undocking in darkness, Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley is backing the orbiter to a point 600 feet in front of the station.
He'll pause there while the station, under the power of Russian segment thrusters, yaws 90 degrees to present its football field-length axis, a 26-minute maneuver. Hurley then will guide Atlantis through a final flyaround of the station.
Atlantis mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim will snap digital pictures of the station's structural truss and modules to help assess their condition.