CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The international space station's three residents bade farewell to one set of houseguests Sunday and prepared for the arrival of more visitors.
The send-off of space shuttle Atlantis' six astronauts Sunday was the start of a week of heavy traffic at the space station, the equivalent of rush hour in space.
A Russian Soyuz vehicle ferrying two new station crew members and the first female space tourist was set to launch overnight, followed by the departure of a Russian cargo ship from the station on Monday. The Soyuz was scheduled to arrive at the space station early Wednesday, and Atlantis was set to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida later that day.
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"As you need more air traffic controllers when the airport gets busier, that's the situation that we're facing," U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria said from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where he will blast off in the Soyuz early Monday. "I frankly think it's very exciting and I think it bodes well for our future."
Early Sunday, Atlantis pilot Chris Ferguson carefully eased Atlantis through a tight corridor away from the station. About 450 feet away, he fired jets to maneuver Atlantis around the space lab so the crew could take photos of the crew's handiwork — a newly expanded station. The space station gleamed in the reflection of the sun.
In three arduous spacewalks with the blue-green Earth as a backdrop, the Atlantis crew unpacked and installed a 17 1/2-ton addition which contained a pair of solar wings that will ultimately generate a quarter of the space station's power. The wings were the first addition to the orbiting space lab since the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Mission Control had asked the crew to take photos of the solar arrays, a rotating joint that will allow the solar arrays to follow the sun and covers where two bolts that escaped during the spacewalks might be hidden.
"It was a great mission. Thanks for all the good work," space station astronaut Jeff Williams radioed Atlantis after the flyaround. "Enjoyed the time together ... Look forward to seeing you back in Houston."
Atlantis commander Brent Jett radioed back, "We'll see you back on Earth ... It was fun working with you guys. Be safe the rest of your mission."
Atlantis' astronauts planned to keep the vehicle about 80 miles behind the space station for the next two days so that they can perform another thorough inspection of the spacecraft's thermal protection skin using a boom with sensors attached to its end. A similar inspection took place on the second day of the 11-day mission.
So far, no damage of the kind which doomed space shuttle Columbia in 2003 has been found, and NASA managers have found nothing that would keep Atlantis from landing Wednesday.
"The shuttle mission, although not over yet, has just been extraordinarily successful," said Phil Engelauf, NASA's chief of the flight directors office.
On Monday, a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, Lopez-Alegria and the world's first female space tourist — Anousheh Ansari — is expected to blast off from the middle of the Kazakh steppe. She will return to Earth on Sept. 28 along with two of the station's current inhabitants — Williams and Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, who have been on the station since April.
European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter of Germany, who arrived aboard the space shuttle Discovery in July, will remain on the station.