The shuttle Atlantis and space station Mir parted company smoothly Tuesday, ending their historic linkup with an orbital ballet that gave some striking views of the Russian outpost as it floated away.
Crew members aboard Atlantis spoke wistfully of the parting after five days of joint operations.
“We’re just shaking our heads at how quickly this has all gone by,” shuttle pilot Charles Precourt told ground controllers after Atlantis was well away from Mir. “What a great time, what a great effort.”
National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials also were pleased by the flawless shuttle-Mir docking, the first of seven planned as a prelude to assembly of a multinational space station beginning in 1997.
“The spirit and capability in NASA is still alive,”said Tommy Holloway, the agency’s director for the shuttleMir program. “This is NASA’s finest hour, and I expect it will continue for many years to come.”
The high-profile docking mission - the first joining of Russian and U.S. spacecraft in orbit since 1975 - is scheduled to end Friday with a landing by Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA, undergoing budget cuts and staff reductions, has been anxious to show Congress that a Russian role in the multinational space station program makes technical and political sense.
Ten astronauts and cosmonauts convivially shared quarters and work schedules while the 120-ton Mir and the 100-ton Atlantis were docked.
The separation of the two craft was uneventful. After binding hooks were unlatched, three springs in the docking mechanism gently pushed the massive spacecraft apart.
The release at 7:10 a.m. came as part of some intricate maneuvers 245 miles above Earth.
Fifteen minutes prior to separation, Mir crew members Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin left their station in a Soyuz capsule. They moved about 300 feet away to photograph the uncoupling of Atlantis and Mir. “Well, there it goes,” Budarin said calmly as Atlantis moved away.
Soyuz then re-docked with the vacant Mir.
Atlantis completed a fly-around inspection of Mir before leaving. The Russian outpost appeared as a lonely, receding speck against a clouddappled Earth as Atlantis departed.