CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – After 11 days together in orbit, Endeavour undocked from the international space station on Tuesday and began its trip home, leaving behind a larger and more energized outpost.
The shuttle's departure broke up the biggest off-the-planet gathering ever: 13 people altogether in space. Seven astronauts were headed back aboard the shuttle. Six remained on the station.
The two spacecraft parted company 220 miles above the Indian Ocean. Endeavour took a lap around the space station for some impressive picture-taking before pulling away for good.
The shuttle is aiming for a Friday touchdown.
"Fair sailing ahead, guys," shuttle commander Mark Polansky called out.
"You made us bigger and better, and we were really glad to have you here," replied station resident Michael Barratt. "It seems awfully quiet here now without you."
During their shared flight, the two crews improved and expanded the space station, installing a porch for experiments on Japan's science lab and plugging in fresh batteries.
They also shared some unexpected inconveniences, most notably a flooded toilet and an overheated air-cleansing system, both of which ended up being fixed.
On their last morning together, they even dressed alike. All wore matching black polo shirts and most of them had on tan pants.
Polansky thanked the station residents for being "tremendous hosts."
"It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience to be part of the first crew of 13 people up here and to have representatives from all the international partners, which made it a very special event," Polansky said just before the hatches were closed.
"We will miss you," replied the station's skipper, Russian Gennady Padalka. "Have a safe trip."
Endeavour's astronauts will inspect their ship Wednesday, using a laser-tipped boom, to make sure the thermal shielding was not pierced by micrometeorites or space junk.
Coming home is Koichi Wakata, a Japanese astronaut who spent 4 1/2 months at the space station. He was next to last to leave, waving goodbye until the moment he disappeared into the shuttle.
The very last to leave was Polansky. He jokingly counted all six station residents to make sure the head count was right.
American Timothy Kopra replaced Wakata on the space station. Another American also stayed behind, as well as one Canadian, one Belgian and two Russians.
Thanks to the astronauts' efforts, the space station is now 83 percent complete, with almost 700,000 pounds of mass.
Seven more shuttle flights are planned over the coming year to complete the orbiting outpost; the next one is targeted for the end of next month. The space station's population temporarily will swell to 13 again then.
An unmanned supply ship, meanwhile, will arrive at the complex Wednesday.