The shuttle Endeavour streaked homeward Thursday, parting ways with the space station Mir after a four-day trip to deliver tons of supplies and U.S. astronaut Andy Thomas to the Russian vessel.
Endeavour began separating from Mir shortly before noon, slowly firing its steering jets and hovering about 240 feet from the space station until hitting the thrusters and making a final inspection orbit.
The shuttle is scheduled to return to Kennedy Space Center Saturday morning. Forecasters say conditions will be excellent for the landing.
Thomas, the last American scheduled to live aboard Mir, replaced astronaut Dave Wolf, who has been there since September. A research scientist and mechanical engineer, Thomas will conduct microgravity experiments.
Thomas’ arrival on Mir was marked by a brief snafu over his spacesuit, which was too tight, and cosmonaut criticism of his limited ability to speak Russian.
Despite Russian requests for more U.S. missions to Mir, NASA has no plans to return after picking up Thomas in May, NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham said.
NASA’s next major focus: the international space station.
“We’re proceeding with all orbiters scheduled for space station flights, and unless we juggle the manifest significantly, there’s no opportunity for additional Mir missions …,” he said.
The first shuttle launch related to the $29 billion Russian-American project is scheduled for June. But technical and financial problems have affected Russia’s progress on the project, leading to a series of delays.
If construction of the station is delayed too much, it could be detrimental to the astronaut crew’s ability to handle long-term missions, said Roger Handberg, an author, space-policy expert and professor at the University of Central Florida.
“Space shuttle missions are usually about two weeks or shorter, but the Mir missions have given us the experience of long-duration space flight, and we need that experience,” he said.
Some analysts said, however, that Mir is a thing of the past and NASA is right to emphasize work on the space station.
“The Russia and U.S. participation in Mir is going to be looked back on as an extremely valuable experience for the U.S. space program,” said Ron Phillips, director of the UCF-led Florida Space Institute. “But it is time for NASA to take its funds and go on to the next generation.”