Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew pulled away from Mir for the flight home Friday, leaving behind an American astronaut as well as a new computer that should make his four-month stay safer and more productive.
Mir’s newest astronaut, David Wolf, watched quietly as Atlantis backed away in darkness 250 miles above Russia. Aboard the shuttle was Michael Foale, headed home after an often stressful 4 months aboard the run-down Russian space station.
The crews wished each other good luck in Russian.
The shuttle astronauts stuck around the neighborhood for a little bit to try to find the holes in Mir that were caused by a collision last June with a runaway cargo ship.
With Atlantis hovering 240 feet away, the Mir cosmonauts twice ejected a burst of air into the sealed-off lab module that was punctured during the collision. The shuttle crew aimed zoom lenses at the module in hopes of seeing any particles that might be forced out the holes.
Moments after the first blast of air, an Atlantis astronaut as well as a Mir cosmonaut saw particles floating from the base of the solar panel that was damaged in the accident. Only one piece of debris was spotted after the second blast.
Flight directors had doubted the 10 sets of eyes in orbit would see anything unusual. The film and video still need to be analyzed on the ground.
“I believe we saw some evidence that there is a good chance there is a hole that can be, probably, located a little more closely,” than it was during a spacewalk last month, NASA shuttle-Mir program manager Frank Culbertson said.
Atlantis is due back on Earth on Sunday night. Foale has said repeatedly he can’t wait to see his wife and two young children. He has been away since May.
Wolf, meanwhile, isn’t due back until a space shuttle returns in January with his replacement - if NASA decides to send a replacement.
NASA waited until Sept. 24, one day before liftoff, before approving Wolf’s mission. Members of Congress had urged that his trip be scrapped because of the escalating number of problems aboard Mir, but NASA pronounced the station safe enough.
Atlantis left Mir after six days of linked flight, during which time more than 10,000 pounds of gear was transferred back and forth, including a new computer for the 11-year-old space station. The old computer kept crashing and causing Mir’s solar panels to point away from the sun.
The new computer held Mir “rock solid” as Atlantis pulled away, Mission Control reported.
“I think that this mission has been a tremendous success,” Culbertson said. “I’m very happy with the way it went.”
Russian engineer Vladimir Syromiatnikov had double reason to celebrate. He helped launch the world’s first artificial satellite 40 years ago Saturday - Sputnik - and also directed the Atlantis-Mir docking.
“It’s good that we have on the eve of that great anniversary concerning spaceflight and space technology, a successful mission that involves cooperation,” Syromiatnikov said from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “It all started with Sputnik.”