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Endeavour crew prepares for shuttle's final flight home

The NASA shuttle is set to undock from the International Space Station later tonight and begin the long journey back to Earth.

NASA astronaut Drew Feustel during a spacewalk on 20 May 2011 during Endeavour's mission to the ISS.
NASA astronaut Drew Feustel during a spacewalk on 20 May 2011 during Endeavour's mission to the ISS.

THE ASTRONAUTS on NASA’s next-to-last shuttle flight floated out of the International Space Station on Sunday and then closed the hatch behind them, after one final round of warm wishes and embraces.

All that remained was space shuttle Endeavour’s undocking later tonight and its two-day trip home.

Shuttle commander Mark Kelly said the one-and-a-half weeks of joint flight went well. He was the last to leave the space station, lingering for a few seconds with the three space station residents.

“We’re looking forward to getting home,” Kelly said, “and we’re going to leave these guys to some peace and quiet and not disturb their space station any more.”

The station’s skipper, Russian Andrey Borisenko, wished the six shuttle astronauts a “soft landing.”

Endeavour will return to Florida in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, never to fly in space again. The shuttle will be retired to a museum in California following the 16-day mission, its 25th. On its final journey, Endeavour delivered a $2 billion cosmic ray detector that will remain on the space station for the next decade.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer already is collecting 25 million to 40 million cosmic particles a day for analysis. It’s searching for antimatter and dark matter, and scientists hope the findings will shed light on the origin of the universe.

Kelly and his crew also provided the space station with a platform full of spare parts and an extension boom for future repair work. The boom, installed Friday on the fourth spacewalk of the mission, marked the completion of the US portion of the space station.

The astronauts also worked on some of the critical life-support systems inside, in an effort to leave the orbiting outpost in the best possible shape for the shuttle-less years ahead.

Pope Benedict XVI talks to the astronauts in the first ever papal call to space (Pic: AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

Astronauts Mike Fincke and Gregory Chamitoff — who spent months living on the space station in years past — pretended they didn’t want to leave Sunday morning. They were dragged into the shuttle by their crewmates. Garan joined in on the joke, waving goodbye as if he were heading out aboard Endeavour as well. He’s just two months into his five-month station stay.

All told, the hatches between the two spacecraft were open 11 days.

Only one more shuttle flight remains for NASA; Atlantis will blast off July 8 with a load of space station supplies to close out the 30-year shuttle program.

- AP

Watch: Good news from space: Gabrielle Giffords doing ‘really well’ after skull surgery >

Watch: Endeavour shuttle launches for final space mission >

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